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After being postponed due to Covid, the Tokyo Olympics is finally around the corner. With less than a week to go for its launch, this seems like the ideal time to review some of the more creative campaigns that have been created around this sporting event.

Given its global significance, the Olympics brings brands and companies an unparalleled chance at visibility. But finding relevance through the event can be a challenge for them. Their products may not be directly related to the event in any way. And in a possible overlap, even their target group may not see themselves as the prime audience of the event.

In addition to these moving pieces, brands also have to fight back the urge to reproduce the same old Olympics narrative, of sportsmanship and the goodness of humanity, when talking to their consumers.

With so much that needs to be got right, it helps to have a collection of reference points in some of the notable campaigns created so far. They are lessons in how even the most seemingly unrelated names in the brand and marketing world can find a unique and tailored connection to the games – even though the games appear to only be about stories of determination that capture athletes winning against all odds and having immense hard work bear fruit.

We have picked four such campaigns to study for this piece. The first two come from global names, P&G and Coca-Cola, which have long remained Olympic sponsors, and the other two are from local brands, Thums Up and Rin, of which the former recently turned a worldwide partner to the games.

Here is how each has approached the games.

P&G’s ‘Thank You Mom’ (2012)

The basis of ‘Thank You Mom’ was a need to leverage the global reach of the Olympics without losing sight of what matters to the company’s TG. As one case study explains, it was a challenge since P&G targets mothers through their products, it doesn’t “enable athletes to become Olympians”. So, it couldn’t convincingly capture athletes next to, or even in association with, its products.

The company tackled this challenge through a combination of consumer surveys and lateral thinking. After discovering that mothers viewed athletes as someone’s child and not just as an individual in themselves, P&G chose to present them as such. It took a behind-the-scenes approach to Olympians and focused on how their mothers were the ones to credit for their greatness.

‘Best Job’, the first film in the series, showed what it was like to be the mother of an Olympic athlete:

It was designed such that, aside from a few details, the mothers in the film seemed just like any other mother. In that, they were the ones to gently prep their child to start the day, take them to their extracurriculars and supervise their progress right up till the day of the performance.

That’s what made the film culturally resonant – despite being made as an ode to Olympians’ mothers, it resonated with every regular mother (and even child). It was created to make her feel just as capable as an Olympian’s mother.

The idea was executed as a 360-degree experience to drive relevance over a sustained period. P&G financed the travel of the mothers of participating athletes. It launched a ‘Thank You Mom’ social media app to give its audience a chance to thank their mothers on a public platform. It stitched together clips of athletes' mothers reacting to their performance in a video called ‘Reactions’ and pushed it out towards the end of games.

Given the idea’s success, ‘Thank You Mom’ was revived thrice after this – for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018.

Coca-Cola’s #ThatsGold (2016)

As a long-time sponsor of the games, it made sense for Coca-Cola to utilise the global coverage that the Olympics can provide to brands and companies. But it needed to do it in a way that resonated with its TG, the youth, and aligned with the light-hearted communication it has come to be known for.

So, it seems like the company addressed these two requirements through its 360-degree campaign and the films that sat at its centre:

‘Coca-Cola Olympics’, film 1:

‘Coca-Cola Olympics’, film 2:

The films took the breeziest possible approach to the games, which has always been about grit and intense emotion. They equated the moment of winning the gold medal, when athletes feel a natural outburst of joy, with the more everyday ‘golden’ moments of life that feel similar in the experience of unbridled happiness – even if they aren’t as intense.

They took the experience of winning at the Olympics, which feels out of reach and other-worldly to most, and turned it into something accessible and relatable. Especially to youth, that is now known for their trait to capture and celebrate as many of their joyous moments as possible.

This understanding of its TG is reflected in Coca-Cola's 360-degree campaign. It set up a Coca-Cola showcase experience, a very 'Instagrammable' set-up, where fans could sample commemorative aluminium bottles, get themselves clicked with the Olympic torch and participate in dance-offs. The company also tied up with social media influencers who shared their own 'golden' moments with their followers, promoting Coca-Cola's campaign.

A more sober element of the campaign also gave the youth from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) job opportunities at the event that would train them in hospitality.

Overall, the campaign was focused on creating an experience for Coca-Cola's TG that turned them into active participants during the event, as opposed to passive observers who admired the progression of the Olympics from afar and only from time to time, without ever truly caring about it. And it turned Coca-Cola, a product that sits opposed to the fitness-oriented Olympians, into an unlikely bridge to the sporting event.

Rin’s ‘Ab Waqt Hai Chamakne Ka’ (2021) and Thums Up’s ‘Toofan wahi jo sab #PalatDe’ (2021)

Rin and Thums Up face a similar challenge to P&G and Coca-Cola, except at a local level. Whether it is the Indian housewife or the adrenaline-charged (male) youth, their audience sees cricket as much more of a priority than the Olympics, when it comes to sporting events. So, they have tried to appeal to viewers' cultural preferences by rooting their conversations about the Olympics in Indian reality.

Rin has created a short film called 'Ab Waqt Hai Chamakne Ka' (a reference to its tagline as a detergent brand) that shares the story of Bhavani Devi, the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics:

It has Bhavani providing the voiceover and sharing how she overcame financial limitations and gender discrimination to reach where she has today. How her mother supported her in pursuing the sport and even loaned off her gold bangles to ensure that Bhavani could get the equipment she needed to train.

At the end of the video, Bhavani shifts from speaking to the viewers to directly addressing her mother, telling her that she has brought home the gold her mother had to mortgage – but it’s a play on the word 'gold' because Bhavani means the sporting medal.

Bhavani's story can be appreciated by Rin's audience for multiple reasons.

It is not just the story of one of the many Olympic players competing at the games, but of an Indian woman who faced struggles that are all too common to our society and culture, and achieved great success despite them. It also reinforces our culture's faith in the endlessly supportive and nurturing capabilities of the mother figure. As they show Bhavani's mother loaned out a possession most important to a married woman, after her mangalsutra.

And in its style of dramatisation, the story is similar to well-performing Indian sports biopics, which show the athlete fighting against all odds, with support from their family, as they go on to achieve victory and make their country proud.

Thums Up hasn't brought elaborate backstories into its film to create cultural relevance. But it is still distinctly Indian in its details:

It has the well-recognised, earthy voice of Bhojpuri actor Ravi Kishan voiceover in Hindi as it shows the qualifying athletes from India. Each athlete is shown pushing aside taunts and ridicule from the naysayers as they continue to work toward their sporting dream.

Airgun shooter Manu Bhaker is told that being a woman, she is not tough enough to handle the sport. And another group of athletes are told they're better off forming a team of 11 – a reference to cricket and a suggestion that it is the only sport worth investing in.

All of these details taken together frame Indian Olympic athletes as underdogs who are fighting back for a chance to prove themselves. A conceptualisation that is supported by creative choices such as shots of the athletes set out to train early in the morning, before daybreak and frames that continue to use the same low lighting to suggest the grind they have experienced.

This narrative is aimed at the brand's TG, who, while having enjoyed the thrill-seeking thought of 'aaj kuch toofani karte hain', seem to have also related to Gully Boy's underdog narrative of 'apna time aayega'. And logically, may relate to the challenges that the athletes have faced to finally receive their due.

Wrapping up

We have discussed how any brand and company can find cultural resonance through the Olympics, even if its product or TG don't directly relate to the event. But we do believe that such associations come with a caveat.

Brands may find a convincing way to connect themselves with the event, but do they have the cultural sanction to do so? Put differently, even if they can associate with the event in some way, will their audience find that association acceptable?

Take the example of Thums Up. Despite creating a powerful campaign, it has been criticised by some crowds for showing athletes, the pinnacle of health, downing entire bottles of the aerated drink for the film. The critics haven’t been convinced by the cultural relevance that Thums Up has created, because they haven’t been able to move past that contradictory linkage.

Brands must take this case into account when planning out similar campaigns. Are they likely to run up against the same challenge as Thums Up? And if they do, how do they plan to limit its fallout?