It tickles us at Redmandarin that the IOC now has 11 TOP partners.
Brands and rights-holders often perpetuate a false correlation between sponsor numbers and clutter, and talk about sponsor clutter as though it’s an issue – and yet the IOC’s elegant solution is simply zen: de-clutter. Certainly, there is a limit to the number of partners that any property will sustain, but the limit itself depends on a number of factors, of which sponsor numbers is but one. What’s ironic is that a principled decision by the IOC to eschew easy commercialisation now looks like the more effective commercial strategy in the long run.
Putting to one side the simple fact that nobody has the painful job of parcelling perimeter branding into 11, or the degrading job of reporting back to partners on ‘share of voice’; or indeed of devising ever cleverer branding opportunities, the absence of logos deftly sidesteps the whole argument about maximum numbers of top tier partners. Michael Paine believes sponsor branding would also have significantly eroded the value of the IOC’s TV contracts: he estimates that programming with ‘encumbered’ messaging would have lost the IOC US$500m in the last round.
The truth is, it’s not so much numbers of sponsors that create clutter. It is, predominantly, three elements: event branding itself, sales promotions and, most of all, weak propositions. The notion of defining optimum partner numbers is simply arbitrary. Take the three latest arrivals at the TOP table – GE, P&G and Dow Chemical – whose collective arrival surely marks an absolute coming of age for TOP.
Although Dow is struggling, obviously, with reconciling its Union Carbide past, the approach of the other two to the Games has been exemplary. GE allowed its Olympic partnership to be a catalyst for a complete restructuring of its entire sales function. P&G, one of the world’s most formidable marketeers, has made a similarly single-minded debut, leapfrogging all existing TOPs to lead with a clear target audience proposition and evident strategic intent: the bold step to offer 90% of its ticket allocation to consumers signals such focus and commitment that P&G is likely to threaten Coke’s privileged first son position within the IOC. The presence and actions of these two companies in particular as TOP partners signals the IOC’s premier position as the ultimate, defining, global property.
All three are global powerbrands, yet all three operate in largely separate environments, where the most valuable communications, via brand-owned media – point of sale, packaging, online, experiential – co-exist with minimal overlap. Whilst the categories of telecoms, consumer electronics, computing and wireless are certainly messy at the moment – as the IOC, the respective industries and the rest of us play catch up with convergence – many partners can co-exist without conflict, let alone clutter.
The IOC’s ability to defy received wisdom about maximum numbers of partners is not just a function of its policy on clean venues – it’s an indication of the strength of the Olympic brand. We’re not referring to awareness scores, which we all know touch on the high 90s in most countries, but to values such as friendship, community and tolerance. These values simply create a broader playing field for brand association than the familiar paradigm of performance and excellence. The IOC has also shown its uniqueness as a sports property in actually caring about and acting on them. It is these values which led, directly, to the decision not to allow perimeter branding. It’s the relevance of these values which led, directly, to P&G applying a consumer marketing proposition to sponsorship with a boldness that has rarely been seen before.
The clean venue policy happens to encourage IOC partners to adopt a discipline which should be standard practise, not just for the Olympics but for any sponsorship – the discipline of defining the brand’s sponsorship proposition: how does my brand proposition express itself uniquely in relation to this sponsorship?
With a clear proposition (and the best possible creative, of course), clutter itself is rarely an issue, because brands give due care – in advance – to structuring the dialogue they wish to have with consumers/target audiences. All touchpoint communications are aligned within a coherent framework of dialogue – and event branding reverts to being a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Clutter is not having too many sponsors – it’s having sponsors without meaning.