'Piggyback' sponsors cash in on Olympics thanks to social media and creative campaigns

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The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, feature some of the most dominant, polished competitors fighting for a grand prize on a global scale.

The games also feature some of the world's best athletes competing for gold medals.

For all the dollars and hours invested in training elite athletes to represent their countries, countless more dollars are funneled into marketing campaigns to capitalize on the popularity of the historic event. Some corporations -- the Coca-Colas and Visas of the world -- spend almost $1 billion to buy sponsorships and develop campaigns over a four-year period.

But for every official sponsor, dozens more are trying to cash in without paying the premium required to be affiliated with the Olympic brand. These "piggyback" sponsors are finding a lot of success, thanks to social media and creative campaigns that use coded language to evoke the games without running afoul of trademark issues.

Of the 10 brands that consumers most associate with the Sochi Olympics, six are not official sponsors, according to a study published last week by Global Language Monitor, a media tracking company based in Austin, Texas.

Companies such as Phillips, Siemens AG and Red Bull fare better than official sponsors McDonald's, GE and Visa, according to the study. Rolex scores better than fellow watchmaker, and official sponsor, Omega.

It's not just the Olympics. The Super Bowl earlier this month also featured ads from unaffiliated sponsors who wanted to cash in on the "Big Game" without paying the National Football League for the right to say "Super Bowl."

"It's going to work in those big events because people are already paying attention to the topic," said Andrew Stephen, a professor of marketing and business administration at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business. "If you can align your brand with that topic without saying too much, that's going to work really well."

Take, for instance, Findlay retailer Dick's Sporting Goods.

The company is not an official Olympic sponsor but has used various platforms to capitalize on the games. The retailer has promoted a "Your Country, Your Colors" campaign, featuring Team USA apparel from Nike -- an official Olympic sponsor. Last week, Dick's tweeted the message: "The Nike Aeroloft Jacket has already seen the podium," including a picture of the plush jackets.

Dick's is tying its brand to the games in Sochi without using the word "Olympics," and is doing it effectively, said Scott Morgan, president of Downtown ad agency Brunner.

Subway, the Connecticut-based sub sandwich franchise, is working with famous Olympians -- former swimmer Michael Phelps, former speed skater Apolo Anton-Ohno and former gymnast Nastia Liukin. Those athletes aren't competing in Sochi, but they generate an affiliation between Subway and the Olympics without the company forking over hundreds of millions to the International Olympic Committee or the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The strategy has paid off. Subway is the brand that consumers most associate with the Sochi Olympics, ahead of every official sponsor, according to the Global Language Monitors study.

"It's a fabulous job leveraging pre-eminent Olympic athletes in a completely compliant manner," said John Ivey, managing partner of AMM, a Boston marketing strategy firm that specializes in sports and entertainment.

His firm helped Putnam Investments of Boston connect its brand to the Olympics without paying the estimated $100 million it takes just to become an official Olympic sponsor (that number grows close to $1 billion with the money companies spend creating ad campaigns tied to their sponsorships).

Putnam is a sponsor of the U.S. Ski Team and U.S. Snowboarding, and athletes sported a lot of Putnam-branded gear while training for the Olympics.

Though Olympians are prohibited from wearing nonaffiliated brands during the games, NBC has shown highlights of Putnam-sponsored training segments on the "Today Show," Mr. Ivey said.

Olympic organizers do their part to quash any nonsanctioned branding. Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter prohibits athlete and sponsor marketing for 28 days surrounding the games, which typically last 16 days. Noncompliance by athletes or the brands that support them could compromise an athlete's future eligibility in the games.

The Olympics also aggressively protects its brand and its trademarks, most notably the famous five-ring logo.

Ten companies are official worldwide sponsors, and they are some of the largest brands in the world. There are 23 domestic sponsors in the United States, including Pittsburgh insurer Highmark, which is listed as a sponsor because it supplies health insurance to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

For the largest brands, official sponsorship still makes sense, experts say.

"The Olympics have this very, very strong brand equity," Mr. Stephen said. "Almost seen as a pro social organization, doing good for the world and humanity. Some brands want to be associated with that. They want to put those five rings on their packaging."

Mr. Ivey said a certain amount of prestige comes with being an official sponsor, and it sends a message to consumers and competitors that the brand is strong and powerful enough to sponsor the Olympics.

Once the games are over, companies that have invested wisely in individual athlete sponsorships can start to cash in.

Rockstar Energy Drink sponsors several athletes competing in Sochi. And while it cannot promote their successes during the games, the company surely will tout its medal count, including a gold medal last week from slopestyle skier Joss Christensen, when the 28-day quiet period is over.

Some companies weren't so lucky. Dick's and Under Armour backed skier Lindsey Vonn, who pulled out of the Olympics with a knee injury. That's part of the risk of sponsoring individual athletes, Mr. Morgan said.

Still, if done right, Mr. Ivey said, companies that do not sponsor the games can get the same type of brand bump as those that do, especially if the athletes they work with use Twitter, Instagram and other online tools to share their experiences.

"If you look at athlete social media, by and large, you can still see the brands with whom they're partnered," Mr. Ivey said. "There's basically a lot of legacy image and video that's out there in the marketplace. This works very well for the nonsponsors."

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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