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Olympic Gold Turns to Marketing Green

Aug 26, 2016
Vincent Moy, Director, Industry Analyst ;

Everyone loves a winner.  Athletes who competed in the Rio Games have more to look forward to than victory parades and talk show guest spots. Advertisers of every stripe clamor for Olympian endorsements, promising lucrative contracts in exchange for promoting their brands. It sounds like a simple enough quid pro quo proposition, but picking the right athletes depends not only on pedigree and personality, but also matching them to the brands used by their fans.

Champion athletes rooted in the same sport can draw distinctly different fan bases. Accordingly, brand endorsements by one athlete don’t automatically make sense for another. Case in point:  swimmers Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky.  Missy was the darling of Team USA back in 2012 when she brought home the gold at the London Olympics, several times over.  After swimming for Cal-Berkely for two years, Missy turned pro and it released a flood of pent-up endorsements including Visa, United Airlines, Wheaties and Minute Maid. According to NPD’s BrandLink, Missy’s fans drink more juices than the average consumer, and specifically more Minute Maid juice; therefore, this endorsement lines up well with existing purchase behavior.

Fast-forward four years to the Rio Games, and Katie Ledecky’s record-shattering Olympic wins put her on every would-be sponsor’s wish list.  Like Missy before her, Katie will postpone turning pro and her swimming for Stanford is sure to tantalize brands waiting to piggyback on her rising star. Based on the beverages that Katie's fans drink, soft drink brands Coke & Pepsi will be a better fit than the juice brands that match Missy’s fans.   Clothing, footwear, personal care, and financial services are also viable sponsor categories, but vetting of specific brands will be needed to align with her fans' preferences.

If any further evidence is needed to highlight the earning potential of Olympic endorsers, Usain Bolt is a case study in riches beyond his collection of gold medals. Since the 2008 Beijing Games, Bolt has lent his name to worldwide brand powerhouses such as Visa, Nippon Airways, Optus Telecom and Gatorade, to the tune of $33 million in the past year. Puma is one of his longest endorsement deals and goes back to 2002; today, Usain Bolt’s fans are three times as likely to wear Puma shoes than the average person, a sign that the deal has been beneficial for both sides. After his third championship Olympics, Bolt will no doubt have even more potential sponsors come knocking on his door; nevertheless, selective partnerships with the brands that his fans already use would be prudent, regardless of how popular he has become.

Athletic endorsements can come from unexpected brands, extending beyond sports apparel and adjacent product categories. Although Ryan Lochte’s Speedo sponsorship has ended, there are numerous partnerships that could be equally successful for him, due to his upscale fan base of young, single women.  Lochte fans buy high-end cosmetics (e.g., OPI, Urban Decay and Lancôme) and fashionable shoe brands (e.g., Coach, Toms & Nine West) at much higher rates than the general public. These advertisers possess an aspirational quality, as do champion swimmers who may not automatically be considered a strong match for make-up or shoes.

Bringing home the gold is the lifelong dream of every Olympic athlete. With the right brand partnerships, their legacy will extend far beyond the five interlocking rings and the 2020 Games in Tokyo.