by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Revelers who were at the quadrennial branding bacchanal otherwise known as the Olympics are already waking up to what I'd expect are gold medal-winning hangovers.

Considering the fact that 1/3 of the largest corporations behind the 2008 games have already dropped out of sponsoring London in 2012, I'd say there’s also a lot of embarrassed remorse going on. Thank goodness there aren't any pictures or records of what went on during the's actually lots of evidence to prompt two basic questions:

  1. Are the branding associations with the Olympics believable or relevant?
  2. Does the exposure do anything for the businesses that pay for it?

I'd like to examine McDonald's, my hometown corporate neighbor, as an example. McD's reportedly spent $866 million:

  • To run ads touting its "healthy" chicken sandwich
  • Ban all of its competitors form doing the same
  • Give free food to all of the athletes, and
  • Schmooze the hell out of its franchisees, vendors, and friends and families of the marketing people responsible for the branding brilliance

As if on cue (or by contractual obligation) swimmer Michael Phelps dutifully performed his "I'm going to Disneyland" moment and ate fries, and runner Usain Bolt claimed he downed Chicken McNuggets before setting the world's 100m record.


McDonald's isn’t healthy food, and it's inconceivable that any athletes training for the local high school swim meet could afford to eat much of it, let alone Olympians. Its supposedly "healthy" sandwich is a chicken breast topped with a pickle in a dry bun...barely passable as something less than a caloric-bomb.

That's not to say that McDonald's isn’t tasty, fun, cheap, convenient, comfortable, reliable, all-American, or doesn’t offer any number of other legitimate, viable benefits. But spending upwards of a billion dollars on a marketing event to claim to be something it's not isn't good branding, marketing, or anything else, is it?

The only Olympic attribute I'd associate with McDonald's is that its branding experts possess an unlimited, and slightly unhinged, willingness to believe in a dream, irrespective of the truth. You can contemplate just about the same delusion for any company that thinks it can benefit from aspiring to attach the Olympics to delivery services, computers, or whatever.

And we wonder why consumer distrust in corporations is at an all-time high?

Now, how about whether all that exposure, however dishonest or imprecise, does anything for the brand and the business?

There's no objective criteria or measure to answer that question.

Conveniently, after the immediate quantitative measures of eyeballs staring at screens and polls of qualitative memories of eyeballs having stared at said screens, there's no such thing as a long-term brand balance sheet.

Sure, there'll be throw-away mentions of Olympic sponsorship in the next quarterly earnings reports (mentioning eyeballs; see above), and the prerequisite photo of Phelps and his gold medals in 2009 annual reports (see athlete endorser contract). The rationale that'll be used most often in most companies, and with the most certitude from those who make money from making such certain rationales, will be that the brand benefited from associating with the Olympics.

See Point #1 above.

Could McDonald's have done something smarter, more strategic, and far more measurable with its $ 866 million? Sure. How about leaving it in the bank and collecting some incremental interest rate? It would probably deliver more meaningful, of not at least more tangible, benefits to the business than wasting it on sponsorship ever will. 

Ditto for the other businesses that slathered billions on the event, some of which are doing just that.

Kodak, ManuLife, Johnson & Johnson, and Lenovo area all reportedly dropping out of sponsoring the 2012 Games in London. The brand experts will say that it's just a function of economies in recession, or that the unique branding associations of London don't fit the reputation architectures of their brand DNAs...or whatever.

Perhaps they've just awoken with a wicked hangover, and sworn not to repeat the same mistake again?

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