Branding and the 2018 Olympics: The bold, the brazen and the confusing

Power and grace, danger and excitement: The Winter Olympics have something for everyone. So how are brands taking advantage of the world’s attention? We asked Landorians around the world for their perspective on the 2018 Olympics and how brands are seizing center stage. Here are observations from our leaders in the United Arab Emirates, China, the United States, and Japan.

Dubai: Mariagrazia De Angelis, Executive Director of Client Services

The big winner in the battle for brand visibility at the 2018 Olympics has to be Intel. The microprocessor company became famous in the ’90s for its revolutionary “Intel inside” marketing campaign. But it was not able to sustain its relevance, even in a world where technology is embedded in almost every conversation. However, we can’t write Intel off yet. Its spectacular, world-record-breaking drone performance at the Pyeongchang opening ceremony, its immersive virtual reality experiences on the Olympic slopes, and its well-designed social media campaign are textbook examples of how to take advantage of a major sponsorship to reclaim relevance. Intel has taken a proactive stance in the technology for human advancement conversation.

When I consider the opening ceremony as a branding professional, the Parade of Nations offers a unique means of nationalistic brand expression. Viewers are directly confronted with one of the best proxies for country branding: team uniforms. Olympic outfit designs require a sapient balance of avoiding stereotypes while highlighting a country’s recognizable identity assets. A lot of big fashion names lent weight to this year’s Olympic attire, from Ralph Lauren, who is designing for the American team, to Adidas designing for the Germans. But the medal for the Best Use of National Visual Assets goes to Canada: Across leisurewear and technical outfits, the maple leaf has been used extensively and creatively in ways that are anything but boring. It’s a great example of why consistency is not the most critical rule when creating a compelling visual system.

Shanghai: Todd Merriman, Strategy Director

Ever since corporate sponsorship of the Olympic Games came into its own with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, large global companies have been trying to align their brands with the spirit of the event, drawing on the inspiration and dedication of Olympic athletes. While it’s exciting to see how well-known sponsors like Coca-Cola and Visa tie their brands into the Olympics, I’m more intrigued by what the host country’s brands do. Why? Because while the Olympics may be a global event, it’s also an incredibly local one, where the host country, its people, and its businesses take center stage. For Korean brands, the Winter Games in Pyeongchang provide a rare opportunity to broadcast their county’s unique cultural identity and pride, while sharing Korean brands with a large, global audience.

Perhaps the world’s most prominent Korean brand, Samsung, is celebrating its 30th year as a sponsor of the Olympics on its home soil once again. Hyundai is generating word-of-mouth with its fuel cell technology showcase; the pavilion hosting its activation is being called “the darkest building on earth.” LOTTE, the conglomerate that owns brands in the confectionary, shopping center, and hotel industries, has enlisted K-Pop band NCT to inspire shoppers, and hopefully sell some LOTTE Duty-Free merchandise. LG and KT are also getting in on the action. At South Korea’s Incheon airport, visitors to the super-connected country can expect AI robots and a groundbreaking 5G telecom network.

NCT U 엔시티 유 '일곱 번째 감각 (The 7th Sense)' MV

South Korea is one of the most innovative countries in the world, not just in technology but also in arts and culture. The Olympics offer the world a taste of this South Korean trifecta, and help Korean brands make an undeniable mark on the world.

New York: Thomas Ordahl, Chief Strategy Officer

Ahh, the Olympics. Does any brand better represent such a strange brew of global unity and national pride? Every time the Olympics come around, I—like many people—struggle to reconcile the disparate factions of local versus global through my own personal game of emotional Tetris. My desire for my country to win the most medals must somehow mesh with my excitement over seeing small countries represented, and hoping they win too.

Check out these sights from the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony

Like many multinational brands, the Olympics aren’t unique in their need to serve two masters. In fact, this is a tension many brands face, from organic cosmetics companies to global consulting firms. The difference with the Olympics is that this tension plays on a very large, very public stage. Just consider this year’s opening ceremony. It featured flag bearers and Olympians from almost every country touting their own nationalistic pride. But it simultaneously united those countries through one giant spectacle, and highlighted the union of South and North Korea—if only temporarily—by parading them under one flag.

For a brand that means so much to so many, how do the Olympics manage to balance the global and the local, the national and the international? It’s complicated, to say the least, but it also creates the magic that makes the Olympics such an exciting and emotional roller-coaster for participants and viewers alike.

Tokyo: Stephen Berkov, Managing Director

The Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics opened amid a tense geopolitical backdrop, especially for Japan, which recently saw North Korean missiles launch over the country and into its waters. In Japan, the abundance of North Korean governmental officials and cheerleaders has taken attention away from the athletes and from brand partnerships and ad campaigns. Instead, the media has focused on politics, putting a dampener on the excitement and neutrality of the Olympics. For many Japanese viewers, this has negatively impacted the Olympic brand, a major challenge for a country preparing to host the next summer Olympic Games in 2020.

Outside of geopolitics, technology has been at the forefront for the brands that have succeeded in gaining recognition. Undoubtedly (if not surprisingly) Intel has been the brand winner, garnering lots of media attention for its Shooting Star drone light show during the opening ceremony. AR and VR innovations have also been a big topic, with Intel again taking the lead. Intel’s True VR app made a splash on the morning television circuit, while Gear VR headsets also made the news, benefitting from the marketing push behind the Intel-powered VR Winter Games experience.

Even with all the hype around politics, tech, and advertising, Japanese athletes like Yuzuru Hanyu have been popular and inspiring. His incredible performance in the men’s ice-skating long program reminds us all why the Olympics carry so much weight and generate so much emotion from fans, athletes, media, brands—and even politicians.


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Header image courtesy of Flickr user Republic of Korea.