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London 2012 Summer Olympics: Going the Distance for Gold — or Green?

By Dominik Prinz & Pat Kerns

Going the distance for gold – or green?

"Given the scope, visibility, and celebrated 'greenness' of this mega-event, sponsoring brands are positioned to win just as much as the Olympic athletes themselves."

Every four years, thousands of athletes from more than 200 countries gather in one city to compete in what is, without a doubt, the biggest sporting event in the world — the Olympic Games. This summer, the eyes of the world will be on London and, in the spirit of Olympic ambition, the city has pledged to host the greenest Olympic event ever staged. For this year’s official sponsors, the London Olympics offer a golden opportunity to strengthen green credentials, create a positive experience for billions of people, and accelerate London’s efforts to become a more sustainable city.

An Olympic-sized opportunity

Though top-performing athletes will receive medals, the real winners might actually be the brands sponsoring the Olympic Games. A staggering TV audience of over 4 billion viewers is expected to tune in this summer. Needless to say, the possibility to reach nearly 70% of the world’s population and generate an immeasurable number of social media conversations doesn’t come around too often. So, the 53 official sponsors of this year’s Olympic Games must be primed and ready to embrace the moment.

This year, Olympic sponsors have an additional platform of which to take advantage: London is determined to create the greenest Olympic Games in history. In fact, the city was awarded the Games largely due to this bold promise. To London’s credit, the city made sustainability part of the project from the beginning—from the way the Games were planned and infrastructure was built, to the extensive use of renewables and the way waste is being recycled. Not only are the London Olympics set to meet low carbon and waste targets, but they will also leave a lasting legacy. Long after the torch is extinguished, transitioning areas of the city will inherit modern transport systems, affordable homes, a new shopping center, and an impressive park, complete with hiking and cycling trails and 45 hectares of natural habitat to boost biodiversity. Clearly, London is serious about its green ambitions.

Given the scope, visibility, and celebrated “greenness” of this mega-event, sponsoring brands are positioned to win just as much as the Olympic athletes themselves. But, to make the most of this opportunity, these brands must strategically align their sustainability efforts (and marketing messages) with the host city’s groundbreaking endeavor.

"Olympic sponsors have an additional platform of which to take advantage: London is determined to create the greenest Olympic Games in history."
The pivot point: Who does the right thing?

Right now, every Olympic sponsor has a critical decision to make: They can either use the Olympic Games to merely spotlight their hero offerings, or they can join London’s quest for a better world and highlight their Corporate Citizenship efforts.

Surely, every sponsoring brand will take advantage of the unparalleled exposure the Olympics bring. More progressive brands, however, will leverage the unique opportunity to educate millions of existing (and potential) customers on their sustainability efforts. Those sponsoring brands that choose to harness the Olympics’ real potential stand to make a lasting, positive impression.

Some sponsoring brands may choose to operate somewhere in the middle, using the Olympic Games to place emphasis on products, services, and their Corporate Citizenship efforts. McDonald’s, for example, plans to showcase local British farmers that supply its restaurants. Coca-Cola will highlight its efforts to reduce waste and source locally. British Telecom has designed a communications infrastructure to minimize carbon impact and maximize reuse after the Games. And even brands like BP, no doubt using this opportunity to restore consumer confidence, have committed to helping all ticketed spectators offset their carbon footprint as they travel to the Olympic Games.

While these efforts should certainly be applauded, the sponsoring brands will only be perceived as credible, authentic, and truly committed to sustainability if their efforts stretch beyond the Olympic Games and are fully integrated into their brand’s DNA.

Going the distance for gold – or green?

The long haul

If sponsoring brands do decide to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, there are two routes they can take. In one predictable scenario, they can simply wash their corporate conscience green, using the Olympic Games as a one-off event — and return to “business as usual” immediately following. Alternatively, they can rise to the challenge and use this year’s Olympic Games as a catalyst for lasting change. Doing so would surely signal to consumers around the world a long-term commitment to helping the planet

Since it’s not always easy to determine which brands are sincere and which brands are greenwashing, we have provided six specific indicators to help you ascertain whether or not a sponsoring brand is serious about its sustainability commitment—both during and after the Olympic Games:

  • Authenticity: Are the promoted green initiatives true to what the brand stands for? Does the Corporate Citizenship strategy closely align with the business and its brand strategy?
  • Relevance: Is the brand’s idea of “doing the right thing” consistent with the values and expectations of the various constituencies it serves?
  • Differentiation: Are the green initiatives setting the brand apart from competitors? Do the brand’s green initiatives go beyond the table-stakes initiative everyone else is doing?
  • Responsiveness: Do the sustainability efforts allow for constant evolvement — and are they being adapted to address urgent environmental challenges?
  • Clarity: Are the brand’s employees aware of, on board with, and actively engaged in the cause?
  • Presence: Are the efforts being communicated and executed in relevant markets beyond the 2012 Olympic Games?

If we are able to quickly come up with sound answers to these questions, we’ll know that a particular brand is joining the Olympic movement for the right reasons and for the long haul.

Going the distance for gold – or green?

The impact brands can make
"...sponsoring brands have a unique opportunity to live up to the London Olympics’ dedicated slogan: 'Inspire a generation.'"

By sponsoring the Olympics, brands align themselves with the spirit of the Games—which is, above all else, a celebration of our shared humanity and a reflection of our highest ideals. Just as Olympic athletes are expected to embody the noble qualities the Games inspire, the same is true of official sponsors. If sponsoring brands take advantage of this year’s great green moment in a sincere and strategic way, they will make the most of the incredible exposure they are certain to receive.

The cynics among us might initially doubt many sponsors’ good intentions, denouncing their efforts as mere “greenwashing.” But, ultimately, sponsoring brands have a unique opportunity to live up to the London Olympics’ dedicated slogan: “Inspire a generation.” And strong brands have the power to do exactly that.

Dominik Prinz is an Associate Director of Strategy and Pat Kerns is a Strategy Consultant in Interbrand’s New York office.