Businesses -- very carefully -- rub shoulders with the Olympics


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The video, posted June 22 on YouTube, lasts just 15 seconds.

Distance runner Lauren Fleshman stands casually in front of a banner signed by employees of Pittsburgh insurer Highmark, all wishing her luck in the Olympic trials.

"This is so awesome. I'm very moved," the athlete says.

Ms. Fleshman didn't make the Olympic team after all -- injuries significantly slowed her training -- and, as of Friday, that video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVLHFXhMN_E) had picked up just 152 views. But the relationship still served the purpose for Highmark, a supplier of health insurance to about 1,000 athletes connected with the U.S. Olympic Committee since 2005.

The insurer chose the runner to be one of its featured athletes in part because she'd been injured in career-threatening ways.

Ms. Fleshman, in another, more professional video for the company, noted her injuries kept her off past Olympic teams and without health insurance she would have been forced to give up.

That message can be inspiring to all those people who keep the claims moving and the lights on back at the office -- the people who signed that banner.

"It's hard at times to get people jazzed up about working in an insurance environment," said Steven Nelson, senior vice president of health services strategy, product and marketing at Highmark.

Sharing the glow from the Olympic rings can make almost anything more glamorous, as companies pitching soda pop and credit cards, watches and hamburgers have all proven.

The 2012 Olympic Games in London, which start this week, could generate between $6 billion and $7 billion in sponsorship and advertising revenue, according to trade publication Adweek.

And that might just be the official marketing.

Health supplements retailer GNC, another Pittsburgh company with a national presence, is carefully trying to get a little shine from reflected Olympic glory by celebrating two athletes who serve as brand ambassadors for the company.

Not long ago, GNC installed a billboard in Times Square that shows Alex Morgan and Heather Mitts, standing more than 40 feet tall, and that celebrates them as "international soccer stars." Both play on the U.S. women's soccer team, but GNC doesn't have the right to use the "O" word.

It can't even use their images during the "blackout period" that blocks the use of Olympic athletes in marketing during the few weeks around the games.

"We'll be covering up the women on the billboard and substituting a message that says, 'Gone to London,' all approved in advance by the USOC," said Jeff Hennion, the company's executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Ah, yes, the rules.

There are plenty of rules around the Olympics and companies that have come into or near the rings say they have to stay in close contact with the governing organizations to be sure they're not committing a foot fault.

Sometimes the rules cause indignation. The Independent newspaper in London recently reported that organizers there will be checking businesses for ads that include words such as "gold," "summer," and "London," and appear to try to claim an Olympic connection.

Some athletes want more rights to their own personal brands during the game.

But even those disputes illustrate that many see the games as a marketing opportunity.

Dozens of companies have official relationships with the International Olympic Committee, the London Games and the U.S. Olympic Committee alone.

Sponsorship consulting firm IEG counts 70 sponsors of those three entities, and that only counts companies like Coca-Cola once even though it sponsors all three.

Internationally, the exact number of companies with some Olympic tie is hard to track because each country's team can have sponsors and even the sponsors of, say, the Netherlands rowing association could be included, said Jim Andrews, senior vice president/content strategy of the Chicago firm.

At the USOC, nine employees are assigned to its different sponsors and licensees for all of their "questions, requests, approvals, planning, advice, activation, you name it," said Lindsay Hogan, director of communications for the Colorado Springs, Colo., organization. Three individuals, including Ms. Hogan, help with the sponsors' public relations efforts.

"Some plan quite a ways out and some are more last-minute," said Ms. Hogan, in an email. As of mid-July, she reported, "We have many that are still finalizing their plans for London, and we're working with them to get everything approved on time."

GlaxoSmithKline, the health care products maker based in the United Kingdom, is stepping cautiously to avoid any marketing disqualifications. Since September 2009, the company has been the official laboratory services provider to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games.

That means Glaxo will help with more than 6,000 drug tests on athletes, a mix of random tests and checks of all medal winners (www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpOJ2dDEWU4).

As a so-called Tier 3 partner, Glaxo is allowed to advertise its Olympic work only in the U.K., said Kerry O'Callaghan, a vice president of global brand communications for the company, which has operations around the world, including a consumer healthcare operation in Moon.

There will be billboards, TV ads and other traditional marketing in Britain.

But Glaxo can also do a little internal team-building companywide, with no flags thrown.

The company came up with the Golden Ticket competition, in which any of its 100,000 employees internationally could be nominated by co-workers to go to the Olympics and attend two competitive events.

Glaxo offered 100 tickets to those who best represented qualities such as friendship, excellence and quality. More than 2,000 employees from 83 markets were nominated.

"We were absolutely gob smacked, not just by the response, but by the quality of the individuals," said Ms. O'Callaghan, who now works in the U.K. but was in the Pittsburgh area between 2000 and 2002.

Notification emails went out in late March, alerting winners that they were going to the games.

Dawn Getty, an analyst in Glaxo's Moon office who deals with planning, forecasting and replenishment, got hers while she was working from home and is thrilled to be going on her first trip to Europe. Glaxo is allowing winners to bring a guest, so she's taking her dad along.

Gary Glew, director of retail category solutions, called his wife to let her know they were Olympics-bound.

"I hadn't even told her I was nominated," he said, because the odds of winning seemed so long.

They'll be going to Olympic events Aug. 5 and 6, with one day involving track events and the other, equestrian.

"How many people get to see Usain Bolt in person?" Mr. Glew said.

Both are longtime Glaxo employees, and the contest reminded them of some reasons they like working there.

"I think the company's involvement in the Olympics is something people are proud of," Mr. Glew said.

He said his team in the Pittsburgh area has also had some fun with the connection by holding competitions in sports like bocce and Frisbee golf.

Those who go will be asked to be part of the Glaxo's social media effort, allowing their co-workers internationally to get a taste of the action.

Overall, the contest helps build community; in Ms. O'Callaghan's assessment, "It's an engagement piece."

Highmark has been using its Olympic connection internally for a little while now, with employees in both 2010 and this year having a chance to pose with one of the torches used in a previous Olympics. This year, for the first time, the insurer is -- with approval from the USOC -- beginning to market its relationship more broadly.

At a Pittsburgh Pirates game in early July, Highmark set up a stand on the Riverwalk where people could pose with a torch carried by Muhammed Ali during the 1996 Atlanta games.

In addition, television and print ads tout the insurer's coverage of the athletes, along with the launch of a Facebook page that's talking up the games.

"I think it's a powerful message to say all the athletes are carrying a Highmark card," Mr. Nelson said.

The TV spots don't actually feature Olympic athletes but rather note that regular folks have the same coverage as the elite competitors and that, he said, is a message that can be used after the events in London are over.

Highmark also expects the marketing to raise people's awareness that the insurer is not just a Pittsburgh-area business. Mr. Nelson said about half of its members are outside the region.

He said one reason the insurer didn't do a lot of consumer marketing around previous Olympics was that the USOC was sorting out the rights of sponsors and how those might be affected by allowing suppliers to tout the relationship.

In its new marketing push, Highmark partnered with seven athletes. All were chosen because of health issues they faced, and four of those made the 2012 Olympic team -- rifle shooter Matt Emmons; runners Galen Rupp and Jeremy Wariner; and swimmer Eric Shanteau (www.youtube.com/watch?v=nE-NfhQCQgA).

Ms. Fleshman may not be Olympics-bound but she still can be seen as a weekly virtual coach on videos done for Highmark's "Running 101" program to help beginners train for a 5K race.

businessnews - olympicsfeatures

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018. First Published July 22, 2012 4:00 AM


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