A Balancing Act in Olympics Marketing

For those of you who think that securing sponsors for the Olympic Games is an easy sell, think again. Lisa Baird, Chief Marketing Officer of the USOC, shares the real story in this Wall Street Journal interview.  Those of us in the marketing business are well aware of the challenges.  Read and learn.

From the Wall Street Journal – February 21, 2016

The Woman on the Olympics Marketing Hot Seat

The USOC’s marketing chief has to weigh the sometimes conflicting needs of corporate sponsors and athletes

LISA BAIRD | ‘We’re the ones raising the resources to give to athletes.’
LISA BAIRD | ‘We’re the ones raising the resources to give to athletes.’ PHOTO: EVAN AGOSTINI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Olympics will return with the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in August. For the athletes, the competition will be the culmination of years of preparation. But the same could be said for the U.S. Olympic Committee, the nonprofit organization tasked with funding the country’s medal aspirations.

Lisa Baird, the USOC’s chief marketing officer, is at the center of that effort. The corporate sponsorships she manages accounted for 35% of the organization’s revenue in 2014, according to the committee’s most recent financial disclosure.

Ms. Baird’s job entails not only signing new sponsors, but also protecting existing sponsors from so-called ambush marketing—advertising by companies that aren’t sponsors but still associate themselves with the Games. It’s a tricky assignment, because the sponsors’ interests need to be balanced against the athletes’ desire to take advantage of their celebrity by striking as many endorsement deals of their own as they like.

For this year, the International Olympic Committee sought a middle ground by relaxing a rule that had banned athletes from promoting nonofficial sponsors during the Games, even if the marketing made no reference to the Games or to the athlete as an Olympian. Now, athletes can appear in ads for nonsponsors that don’t refer to the Olympics, with approval from the USOC for American team members—though any allusion to the Games by a nonsponsor is still against the rules.

Ms. Baird talked with The Wall Street Journal about the challenges of marketing an event held for only 17 days once every two years, and the balancing act required to appease both sponsors and athletes. Following are edited excerpts.

WSJ: How is sports marketing different at a nonprofit organization?

MS. BAIRD: It’s completely different. The great news is your mission is so clear: raise the money to help the athletes and our national governing bodies. It’s a very inspiring vision. The challenging part of it is we have very little money to tell our own story. We’re not funded the way the NFL is with their own media or the way the NBA is with their own rights, to be able to use your own assets to tell your marketing story.


WSJ: How do you overcome that?

MS. BAIRD: Our strategy is to bring on partners not only who provide the resources to the athletes but also tell our story. One of the first sponsors I brought on in 2009 was Procter & Gamble. They created this incredible campaign about the moms of Olympic athletes, and it helped America understand the Olympic movement. For me, the most inspirational part of it is working with marketers to tell our story this way.

WSJ: You started a campaign to remind Americans that the USOC relies on private funding. Why was that important?

MS. BAIRD: About half of Americans don’t realize we’re entirely privately funded by sponsors, donors and the sale of licensed goods. We get no government funding. One of the big challenges we have is this idea that the Olympic team only exists for 17 days. It’s very top of mind and the whole world comes together around the Olympics, but then they go away. So what we’ve been doing is building the understanding among Americans that it’s the practices, it’s the training, it’s the long hours at the pool. It’s not just 17 days. It’s 365.

WSJ: How does that help attract sponsors?

MS. BAIRD: We have created the understanding among consumers that our sponsors are the ones that help the team, and that translates into purchase and consideration. We have numbers that show that people say “You know, I’m going to go buy a Coke, I’m going to go buy a Chobani, I’m going to listen to someone from Liberty Insurance because they’re supporting Team USA,” and all of our numbers show that that is important. We definitely have the most product-loyal fans of any sport.

WSJ: You’re competing for sponsorship deals with sports that have long seasons and play every year: the NFL, the NBA, MLB, etc. The Olympics are 2½ weeks, once every two years. How does the USOC compete?

MS. BAIRD: When I started in 2009, we needed to develop a fan base that was going to be with us, and we needed communication with it. The way we chose to do it is through social media. Now you have a much richer form of conversation about the athletes, and that’s the big achievement between then and now, and why we’re able to find sponsor appetite for digital media. The Olympic team was this jewel, and then it went in a box between the games. Now, these are athletes you want to talk to every day. In a non-Olympic year, telling our stories is important.

WSJ: How much of your job is about signing new sponsors and how much of it is about protecting the rights of current sponsors and guarding against ambush marketing?

MS. BAIRD: It’s both. We had some really tough times when I joined, and we were quite vocal in what I feel about intentional ambush marketing. It’s not intended to hurt the athletes, but it does. It’s intended to borrow intellectual property. And we were really vocal about how that actually hurts the future athletes. We’re the ones raising the resources to give to athletes. I think by being vocal it probably educated people.

WSJ: How much tension has that caused with athletes?

MS. BAIRD: Athletes feel that the games are their most valuable period to tell their story. That was where a lot of the dissatisfaction was voiced. I endorse and want to see athletes getting more endorsements, because they’re great athletes. That’s good for everybody. But if it’s intentionally being clever about using our intellectual property to hold this other sponsor up as an Olympic sponsor and there’s confusion in the marketplace, that hurts America’s teams’ prospects, period.

WSJ: How much easier will the new rule make things?

MS. BAIRD: It’s a really good thing, because they were pretty clear that they wanted us to address the dissatisfaction of athletes but also protect the rights of the Olympic rights holders. This process allows for companies to continue to use athletes in their endorsements. There’s almost no reason now to ambush. We’ve really looked to address everybody’s concerns. Now the proof will be in, does it work?

Mr. Costa is a Wall Street Journal reporter in New York. He can be reached at brian.costa@wsj.com.