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 / Spring 2007 / Issue 46(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Gold-Medal Partnership

At the Los Angeles Games in 1984

Gray Rings
As a firsthand witness to the growth of the public–private partnership, I might be tempted to say that it emerged fully formed and with impeccable commercial and ethical clarity. In fact, one of the clearest lessons from the Olympic experience is that, for public–private partnerships to work, everyone involved must accept that there are gray areas in any endeavor of this sort. For the Olympics, the first is organizational: You cannot nail down every detail of a long-term relationship in a contract. You have to be prepared to deal with the inevitable issues when they emerge; flexibility is essential. At times, decisions must be based not on what the contract says but on whether an action enhances and supports the Olympic brand and strengthens the partnership for the future.

The second area of concern is the Olympic brand, which will always attract people with their own agendas. It is simply unrealistic to imagine that the Beijing Games will not bring their own ethical challenges, not least an entire gray market in Olympic merchandising. Burying one’s head in the sand is not a viable strategy. The long-term protection of the Olympic brand requires its custodians to engage with the gray areas while never breaching Olympic values.

In public–private partnerships, it is essential that the definition of success be agreed on and shared. Over the last 25 years, the Olympic Movement has undergone a process of mutual education, and as a result, what constitutes success is now clearer than ever before. This shared understanding makes it easier to oversee such a complex partnership, but does not inoculate it from difficulty — financial, political, or other. However, in my experience, an Olympic-style partnership has the greatest chance of success if it adheres to six fundamental principles:

1. Manage the brand as the highest priority. Public–private partnerships can founder without a proactive force behind them. Complex partnerships can suffer from power vacuums in those areas where compromise, rather than control, holds sway.

In the wake of the 1984 Games, the IOC took control of its own destiny and now manages the Olympic Games like a franchise, with the IOC as the franchisor and the local organizing committees as the franchisees, tightly controlling all commercial aspects of the Games and the Olympic visual identity. Along the way, the IOC adopted many of the principles and disciplines of corporate brand management to protect and enhance the Olympic image and attributes.

After the 1998 winter Olympic Games in Nagano, the IOC embarked on the broadest market research program ever undertaken by a sports organization, a comprehensive study across 11 countries involving interviews and focus groups with more than 5,500 consumers, and a further series of 250 in-depth interviews with key media, Olympic officials, and sponsors. The research confirmed that the Olympic brand differs from other brands because it straddles two universes. It is not strictly humanitarian, like the Red Cross, nor is it strictly commercial, like other entertainment or sporting brands. The Olympic brand’s sports association gives it greater dynamism and modernity than are found in other noncommercial organizations, yet its spirit and heritage give it more morality and depth than are usually found in commercial brands.

The research identified four key value propositions for the Olympic brand: hope; dreams and inspiration; friendship and fair play; and joy in effort. It became clear that noncommercial ideals provided the Olympic brand with its true commercial value for marketing partners. This understanding highlighted the need for the IOC to defend the Olympic Games’ commercial rights, the Olympic image, and what the Olympic Movement stands for. The parameters are clear and strictly enforced. Exclusivity is a critical guarantee. Sponsors need to know they can invest in the Olympic Movement and be certain that they are not going to be undermined by a last-minute surprise promotional campaign by their competitor.

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  1. Alain Ferrand and Luiggino Torrigiani, Marketing of Olympic Sport Organisations (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2005): Advice for marketers on working with the Games, with insight into the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit sports organizations.
  2. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: Describes how public, private, and civil leaders can develop their own Olympic-style mutual efforts. Click here
  3. Philip Kotler, Donald Haider, and Irving Rein, Marketing Places: Attracting Investment, Industry and Tourism to Cities, States and Nations (Free Press, 2002): How places can turn themselves into appealing “products” by cleaning themselves up, helping their industrial base, and marketing themselves more effectively.
  4. Michael Payne, Olympic Turnaround: How the Olympic Games Stepped Back from the Brink of Extinction to Become the World’s Best Known Brand (Praeger, 2006): An inside account by the first marketing director of the International Olympic Committee (and author of this article).
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