SBJ/July 23-29, 2012/In DepthPrint All
Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
Four years ago, on the day after China mesmerized the world with the synchronized beat of 2,008 drums, Visa’s top marketing executives and London Olympic organizers gathered for dinner at a traditional Chinese restaurant in Beijing’s financial district.
It was an informal gathering, but it was an important first step in Visa’s preparation for this week’s London Games. It allowed Visa chief marketer Antonio Lucio and his team to connect with London leaders Sebastian Coe and Paul Deighton and forge the backbone of a partnership that has lasted the past four years.
The Olympics demand more time and attention than almost any other sports sponsorship. Companies with worldwide rights spend years creating marketing programs that stretch across hundreds of nations and an array of languages. Their estimated marketing spending can soar to more than $250 million.
“The Olympics are in Visa’s DNA,” said Rob Prazmark, the head of 21 Marketing who sold Visa its first Olympics sponsorship in 1985. “They work it every day of the four years [between Summer Games]. It’s in their vernacular and global brand profile.”
Over the course of the last three months, and through more than a dozen interviews, Visa executives pulled back the curtain on their marketing efforts ahead of the London Games to reveal what it takes to design the creative, select the athletes and develop an on-site activation plan that allows the company to reap the rewards of its $100 million Olympic sponsorship.
It’s a complex process that can be traced from a dinner in Beijing to the Olympic superstore in Hyde Park.
A campaign is born
It was early 2008 when the creative team at TBWA got a brief from Visa calling for a new ad campaign to replace “Life takes Visa.” Lucio, who had become the company’s new chief marketer, wanted a slogan that underscored the values endemic to the company and the Olympics.
TBWA Executive Creative Director Patrick O’Neill’s team went to work immediately. The first idea they developed showed Visa supporting athletes by holding them up with hands.
Visa nixed it.
The next idea showed Visa athletes pushing the continents of the world together.
Visa nixed that, too.
Time was running out on the creative team when they decided to move from complex metaphors to stories about
“That’s how we ended up with this idea of ‘Go Humans,’” O’Neill said.
The slogan originally had been developed by TBWA for the International Olympic Committee in 2000, but the IOC opted for “Celebrate Humanity” instead. O’Neill revived it for Visa because he thought it matched the company’s effort to support athletes.
In February, he and his team traveled to Visa’s headquarters in San Francisco loaded with “Go Humans” print ads, storyboards, scripts and pictures. They presented the idea to Visa’s senior marketing staff.
Lucio liked it, but he worried it was too emotional. He wanted to cut some of the emotion out of it. TBWA’s creative team pushed back, saying that the emotion drove the campaign and that scaling it back would undermine the campaign. Creative prevailed, and Lucio took the idea to Switzerland to share it with the IOC.
“We were kind of blown away,” said Timo Lumme, IOC managing director of TV and marketing services. “It was profound.”
But Lumme said there was one problem. Nongovernmental organizations were hammering the IOC and its sponsors over China’s human rights abuses ahead of the Beijing Games. Lumme asked: Wouldn’t “Go Humans” add fuel to their fire, or at the very least look tone deaf?
The observation led TBWA to change the slogan to “Go World.” The campaign, which ran exclusively in the United States, featured actor Morgan Freeman’s deep voice telling the stories of historic Olympic moments as sepia-toned, still images of athletes scrolled across the screen.
Visa’s marketers became so enthralled with the concept in the ensuing months that by the time they met with London leaders in China that summer in 2008, they were already making plans to use it in London four years later. They even joked with Coe, a 1,500-meter gold medalist in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, about featuring him in one of the spots.
“It seemed like a very winning concept,” said Jennifer Bazante, Visa’s head of global brand marketing and strategy. “It’s based on this universal human truth: removing borders, barriers and boundaries. It’s a great idea, and we did some investigation of how we could bring it to life in different markets.”
Visa’s Facebook page gives fans a chance to encourage Olympic athletes with cheers.
For London 2012, Visa marketers pushed TBWA and its digital agency partners, Socialarc and Atmosphere Proximity, to incorporate social and digital media into the campaign. It fits into Lucio’s belief that Visa must be where consumers make purchase decisions, and increasingly they do that online.
The company is encouraging fans to cheer on its 60 sponsored athletes, such as U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and volleyball player Kerri Walsh, by submitting digital “cheers” through clicks, posts, photos and video on Visa’s Facebook page. TBWA will incorporate those cheers into advertising spots congratulating athletes on their performances this summer.
“In the past, it was Visa cheering the athletes on, but we wanted to invite the world to cheer the athletes on, as well,” Bazante said. “By harnessing [all these cheers], you can really inspire the athletes.”
Building Team Visa
During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Michael Lynch, then-Visa senior vice president, was looking for athletes the company could sign for the Athens Games. Everyone he spoke to at the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Swimming and other organizations recommended a 15-year-old swimmer named Michael Phelps.
But Lynch had reservations. The kid was young. He didn’t even medal in Sydney. Could he really be a star?
It wasn’t until Lynch spoke to his neighbor that he changed his mind. The neighbor’s daughter swam competitively and told Lynch he would be a fool not to have Visa endorse Phelps.
In 2002, the company became Phelps’ first non-endemic sponsor, and it’s made him a centerpiece in its Olympic
Michael Phelps and Visa chief marketer Antonio Lucio attend a “Go World” media day in May in New York City. Visa nearly passed on signing the swimmer early in his career.
Photo by:Getty Images
Visa has put Olympians front and center in its marketing for the last decade. The Team Visa athletes, as they are called, were what inspired TBWA to create the “Go World” spots.
The way Lynch identified and signed Phelps in 2002 is indicative of the company’s approach to selecting athletes. It has sponsorships with top national governing bodies like USA Track & Field and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association, which give it access to insights on who the stars of tomorrow might be. It also enlists GMR Marketing to help it keep spreadsheets tracking the performance of U.S. and international athletes in competitions worldwide.
The company historically signed undiscovered athletes for three reasons. First, it increased the likelihood the athletes would thank Visa first in interviews. Secondly, it allowed the company to build long-term equity in the athletes. And finally, it gave them leverage at the negotiating table, which reportedly has allowed Visa to pay as little as $10,000 for an endorsement.
In addition to looking for undiscovered athletes, Visa looks for athletes representing new sports in the Olympics. That’s why it signed boardercross star Seth Wescott in 2006 and beach volleyball stars Walsh and Misty May-Treanor in 2003. It also looks for athletes with compelling stories to tell, such as U.S. distance runner Lopez Lomong, who signed before the London Games in large part because of his backstory as one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys.”
Visa’s approach to signing athletes has evolved since 2008. With the “Go World” campaign now reaching 70 markets, the company’s Olympic marketing team has centralized responsibility for signing international athletes.
In many markets overseas, it will sponsor only one or two athletes, and as a result, it has begun signing more recognizable stars. It signed tennis player Li Na in China, and distance runner Paula Radcliffe in the U.K.
The “Go World” campaign has added another wrinkle to the company’s approach. Because the campaign focuses on athletes, TBWA has brought some stories to Visa and asked the company to find an athlete to fit the creative.
For example, Visa's ad agency in Brazil, BBDO Brazil, had the idea for creating a spot that showed a diver plummeting from the tallest building in the world. Visa marketers liked the idea but didn’t have a diver, so they went out and signed David Boudia to star in the commercial.
“It was so compelling we felt we needed to do it,” Kauffman said.
The athletes are more than the centerpieces of Visa’s TV and print creative. They also cover buses in Olympic cities and bags at Olympic stores. They’re the glue for everything the company does.
The way to pay
On the first Wednesday in July, Kauffman joined dozens of people waiting in line for the opening of the London 2012 store in Hyde Park. He picked out T-shirts for his kids and headed to the checkout line.
As he entered the line, stanchions greeted him that read: “Visa accepted.” The blue wall to his left showed images of a half-dozen team Visa athletes wrapped around the words “We are proud to accept only Visa.” A massive image of Phelps diving in the water dominated the wall in front of him.
This was the epicenter of Visa’s on-site activation in London, and Kauffman thought it looked phenomenal. His Olympic
Visa’s point-of-sales team has planned for every possible issue that could arise.
Visa is unique among Olympic sponsors in how it promotes its brand on-site. Most sponsors have spent millions designing and erecting brand showcases at the London Games. The structures introduce visitors to new Samsung products and allow them to sample Coca-Cola. But Visa doesn’t ever have one.
The company’s rights as the official payment system of the Olympics allow it to take a different approach.
“We have the largest number of intersections between our category and the organization of the Games,” said Ricardo Fort, Visa’s new head of sponsorship. “Because we’re processing and facilitating payments, we touch everything.”
Instead of building a showcase, Visa builds a payment system that guarantees people can use their Visa cards to buy everything from T-shirts at the Olympic store to hamburgers at McDonald’s.
The company this month has installed 3,200 credit card machines across 34 Olympic venues and three Olympic stores. It has posted 250,000 individual Visa logos at point-of-sale locations and delivered 3.2 million Visa-branded shopping bags for the Olympic stores to give customers.
It’s a massive undertaking. Every day over the last month, Kauffman led morning meetings with Visa’s point-of-sale, brand and communication teams to evaluate their progress.
The point-of-sale team consistently ran into the most trouble. Telecommunications and power were the last things made operational at many London venues, so installing credit card machines often got delayed.
Getting those machines installed and working is priority No. 1 for Visa. The company knows that if those machines don’t work, it will face immense public criticism. It already experienced that once ahead of the London Games.
When London organizers put tickets on sale in 2011, they declined to accept Visa cards that expired that August. When hundreds of people weren’t able to buy tickets, the press came down hard on Visa. Though the decision to decline cards was made by the organizing committee, the company issued a public apology.
To prevent mistakes like that during the Games, Visa’s point-of-sales team planned for every possible issue that could arise. It even trained London venue managers on working through a natural disaster or a terrorist event.
“Think of it as an orchestra,” Kauffman said. “All of the pieces have to work according to the sheet music that we laid out many months ago. … These projects we’ve been planning for years are going into implementation and the world is watching.”
Visa’s branding extends beyond the venues and throughout London. The company collaborated with its sister company, Visa Europe (see related story), to wrap 460 taxis and 50 buses that will be driving around town. It also has more than 200 signs spread throughout Paddington Station, Heathrow Airport and Westfield London mall, where 80 percent of visitors will arrive to enter the Olympic Park.
More than 90 percent of restaurants and retailers in London accept Visa, and providing them all with Olympic-themed branding would be impossible, so the company decided to limit what it provides to the city’s Covent Garden area. Some 200 retailers in the area will showcase posters with Visa athletes and the London 2012 logo.
“The beauty in that is that it allows the merchant community to get involved in the Games,” Kauffman said.
The only other Visa signs visible in the coming weeks will be ones held aloft by hospitality tour guides. Visa will host thousands of guests from around the world during the Games. The bulk of the guests will be sweepstakes winners who won a trip to the Games through one of 250 banks worldwide.
At the same time Visa is taking those customers to Olympic events, its senior marketing team will be sitting down to a special dinner for the leaders of the Rio Games. The dinner will be informal, just as the dinner it hosted for London 2012’s Coe was a few years ago, but Visa’s message will be clear.
“We have a lot of people who have gone through many, many Games,” Fort said. “Our role is to open their eyes to everything they’re going to go through.”
It’s a process that begins with a meal and won’t end for four more years.
Bring your Visa card: Olympic marketing highlights
■ Calgary 1988: Visa’s first Olympic Games sponsorship features the iconic campaign: “Bring your Visa card, because the Olympics don’t take American Express.”
■ Seoul 1988: Continues its “Olympics don’t take American Express” campaign; accuses American Express of ambush marketing after the rival uses footage with the Olympic stadium in an ad.
■ Albertville 1992: Develops marketing programs activated through financial institutions and merchants worldwide; enhances local presence marketing.
■ Barcelona 1992: Develops and promotes an on-site Olympic art exhibit.
■ Lillehammer 1994: Introduces Visa Travel Money.
■ Atlanta 1996: Creates Olympians Reunion Centre with the World Olympians Association.
■ Nagano 1998: Uses Olympic merchant programs as a model to expand domestic card acceptance and usage in Japan.
■ Sydney 2000: Visa International launches its “Kangaroo Dream” ad campaign, promoting travel and tourism in Australia.
■ Salt Lake 2002: Records its highest level of global banking and partner participation for a Winter Games; record point-of-sale volume; begins Paralympic Games sponsorship.
■ Athens 2004: Creates the global Team Visa program with Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh and other Olympians.
■ Torino 2006: Creates Visa Championships — Torino 2006, an online game and international competition; Visa USA features Bode Miller, Jonny Spillane and Michelle Kwan in “Life takes Visa” ads.
■ Beijing 2008: Adds approximately 90,000 ATMs and signs up 216,000 merchant acceptance locations or outlets throughout China; hosts more than 8,000 guests; turns over the operations of the Olympians Reunion Centre to the World Olympians Association.
■ Vancouver 2010: Introduces its first Olympic-themed global marketing program, Go World, following the successful use of the slogan in the U.S. only during the Beijing Games.
Sources: Visa, SportsBusiness Journal research
Instead of being greeted at Heathrow by gold-tinged images of Michael Phelps above the words “Go World,” people arriving at the airport will see blue posters featuring Usain Bolt and the words “Life flows faster with Visa.”
Welcome to Visa Europe.
When international banks decided to take Visa public in 2006, banks in Europe decided to keep Visa’s European division independent. Visa Inc., the publicly traded company in 200 markets, and Visa Europe, the private company in 36 European markets, became separate entities.
Though they’re independent of each other, they still share the Olympic sponsorship and operate under a basic gentleman’s agreement: When a Games is held in a Visa Inc. territory, Visa Inc. dictates the on-site marketing materials; when a Games is in Europe, Visa Europe dictates it.
Visa Europe uses a taxi wrap to promote a system for processing credit cards.
Visa Europe and Visa Inc. began working together years ago to determine how they would approach the London Olympics. They have collaborated on everything from the bus wraps that will be seen around the city to the installation of the credit card machines at 34 Olympic venues.
The biggest difference between the companies is their marketing message. While “Go World” is being used by Visa Inc. in 70-plus markets worldwide, Visa Europe is using the slogan “Life flows faster with Visa.”
The European company is promoting a new technology that processes credit cards without requiring them to be swiped, and it developed a commercial featuring Bolt that showcases the contactless cards’ speed. The company also signed 21 athletes of its own.
Visa Europe and Visa Inc. worked together to determine how the company would brand areas of the Olympic superstore and point-of-sale spots in venues. The result is a blue backdrop that showcases athletes from both companies’ portfolios. It doesn’t include either the “Go World” or “Life flows faster” slogan. Instead, it says “We are proud to accept only Visa.”
The fact that the Games are taking place in a European market changed the way Visa Inc. approached them, but it didn’t undermine either companies’ efforts on the ground, said Ricardo Fort, Visa Inc. head of sponsorship marketing.
“The feeling is it’s one team working together,” Fort said.
For most people on the ground, that’s exactly what it will look like.
The window of opportunity for post-Olympics endorsements has contracted over the last decade. Recognizable stars like Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty May-Treanor, Ryan Lochte, Allyson Felix, Cullen Jones and unexpected winners will land some new deals after the London Games, but most marketers will be watching closely in hopes of identifying the stars of tomorrow who they can showcase in Rio 2016 promotions. Here are six athletes who may rise to the top of that list:
Photo by:Getty Images
The 24-year-old decathlete broke the world record at the Olympic trials last month and appears poised to have a breakout Games. With it unlikely that an American takes gold in the 100- or 200-meter sprints, Eaton is positioned to become the face of U.S. track and field and a popular choice for brands ahead of Rio 2016.
Photo by:Getty Images
The 17-year-old phenom is being hailed as the female Michael Phelps. She plans to keep her amateur status and enroll in college, but if she even comes close to matching the five gold medals she won at last year’s world championships, there will be a line of marketers waiting to sign her the moment she goes pro.
Jordyn Wieber &
Gabby Douglas Jordyn Wieber
Photo by:Getty Images (2)
Gymnastics at the 2008 Olympic Games produced two stars, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, who both went on to sign deals with companies ranging from Warner Brothers to Bounty paper towels. Wieber (top) and Douglas, both 16, have a chance to replicate their predecessors’ success in the coming weeks and could make similar attempts to return for the next Olympics in 2016.
Photo by:Getty Images
The 23-year-old is Team USA’s best chance for a gold in diving since 2000. He finished second in the 2011 world championships and has increased the degree of difficulty in his dives in hopes that he can pull off an upset in London.
Photo by:Getty Images
Technically, he’s the world’s fastest man. The problem is that no one knows it. The 22-year-old Jamaican won the 100-meter dash at the 2011 world championships after his training partner, Usain Bolt, false started. Blake is looking to do that again in the coming weeks.
The tempest over tickets
It’s hard to say what came first: the sale of a ticket to the Olympics, or criticism of the sales process. The two have gone hand-in-hand since LOCOG announced the date it would put tickets on sale in 2011. Criticisms have ranged from the cost of tickets, to the lack of transparency about the sales process, to the scarcity of tickets to the British public. LOCOG didn’t help matters by setting up their system to reject Visa cards that expired in the summer of 2011. The British press has covered the process incessantly and uncovered this month that CoSport (a subsidiary of Jet Set Sports) had sold tickets to the public that had been reserved for sponsors, which has led to an International Olympic Committee investigation.
Loving it live: NBC to live stream all events
After years of tape-delaying the highest profile sports events for prime time, NBC is changing its approach. NBCOlympics.com will live stream every event for the first time, offering more than 3,500 hours of programming. Users who want to watch video on their phone or tablet through NBC’s new app, NBC Olympics Live Extra, will have to first show they get MSNBC, CNBC and other NBC Universal channels from a cable, satellite or telecommunications company. The industry has been slow to develop an authentication model that works, and the sports media industry is counting on a big event like the Olympics to help the public get used to the process.
Avoiding a traffic jam
Photo by:Getty Images
There’s a scene in BBC’s mockumentary “Twenty Twelve” about organizing the London Games in which the head of infrastructure is seated in front of a city map explaining the importance of managing traffic flows during the Games. “You get this right, no one’s going to notice,” he says. “You get this wrong …” “Everyone notices,” someone interjects. “Well, first they notice, yeah,” the head of infrastructure says. “And then they die.” Londoners already complain about the city’s congestion. The Olympics and its 9 million spectators will only make matters worse. Spectators are being encouraged to use the city’s Underground, and LOCOG has set up a special site to assist them with making transportation plans so they can get to events on time.
Coping with controversy
Sponsors spend a great deal of time developing marketing plans for the Olympics, and now that the event has arrived, many will have to get aggressive with their public relations in order to protect that investment. Dow certainly will face questions and protests again about its links to the company behind an Indian manufacturing disaster that killed more than 2,200 people in 1984. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s will face similar scrutiny over the dissonance between their support of the world’s biggest athletic event and their contributions to global obesity. And Ralph Lauren will continue to hear about the company’s decision to outfit Team USA in opening ceremony apparel manufactured in China.
Soaring with social
This is being hailed as the first true, social media Olympics. The last time the world gathered to celebrate a Summer Games, Facebook had 100 million users and Twitter was a startup. Today, Facebook claims more than 900 million users and Twitter boasts more than 500 million. Their massive growth has led brand marketers, TV rights holders, athlete representatives, Olympic officials and journalists to all develop social media plans for the London Games. It also will change how the world consumes the Olympics and follows events from London over the next three weeks.
Preserving the peace
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Organization of the London Games appeared to be moving smoothly until reports surfaced that G4S, the contractor hired to provide security, failed to hire enough civilian guards for the Games and many of those it had hired fell asleep during training and failed to spot fake bombs in an X-ray machine. It’s ignited major concern about security ahead of an Olympics that British officials and London organizers want to be sure isn’t marred by terrorism. Police have conducted counterterrorism sweeps in recent weeks, arresting more than a dozen people, and organizers are determined the London Games aren’t remembered for violence alongside the 1972 Munich Games and 1996 Atlanta Games.
The London Olympics will stand alone for being the most sustainable Games on record and for the large number of competitive venues blended into the city’s historical landmarks.
Both design points were key factors behind Populous winning jobs tied to the 2012 Summer Games.
Populous, the North American design firm with an office in London, has been principally involved in forming the Olympic footprint over the past nine years, starting with the master plan for Olympic Park and the design of most competitive facilities, including the main stadium.
In 2007, Populous won the bid to execute the “overlay” for about 150 venues, a total number extending to rail stations, airports and street infrastructure. As the event architect, Populous’ Denver-based group is responsible for designing temporary modifications to all facilities — the installation of portable seats, tents, cabins, trailers, fencing, utilities and circulation systems — all without touching the physical layout of competitive courts and arenas.
“The overlay is very similar to the Super Bowl, where we redesign the venue to hold the event,” said Jerry Anderson, a senior principal for Populous and the NFL’s chief consultant for planning the league’s championship game.
Venues were designed with seating that provides views of historic buildings and the London skyline. Here is the view from Greenwich Park, site of the equestrian and modern pentathlon.
Photo by:Getty Images
The common theme was to create a venue plan iconic to the London landscape and to deliver the greenest Games in the event’s 116-year history, to “work in legacy mode without becoming a white elephant,” Anderson said.
As a result, only a handful of the 100-plus competitive venues were built from the ground up for the Olympics. The 80,000-seat main stadium and 17,500-seat aquatics center, two permanent buildings, will be stripped down into smaller venues after the Games.
Populous, in conjunction with Buro Happold, its co-designer for London Olympic Stadium, were also hired to design a retrofit to reduce the stadium’s seating to about 60,000 to accommodate a future sports tenant that has not yet been determined.
The plywood, steel studs and other reusable materials used to construct the overlay portion of the Olympic venues are supplied by a few companies that specialize in providing rental stock for international events, Anderson said. After the London Olympics, the equipment will be removed and sent to the 2014 Winter Olympics and World Cup events. In addition, some materials will be recycled for Habitat for Humanity housing.
“The amount of temporary buildings London is using is equivalent to the previous three Summer Games in Sydney, Athens and Beijing,” said Jeff Keas, Populous’ project lead who has been working on the city’s Olympics plan for five years.
The sustainability effort extends to the ExCeL exhibition center, a 12-year-old multipurpose conference facility. The hall was converted into five temporary arenas for seven Olympic sports — boxing, fencing, judo, table tennis, taekwondo, weightlifting and wrestling.
To integrate the Olympics into the city’s landscape, seating bowls at most venues were positioned for open views of centuries-old buildings, some dating back 500 years.
“London is the crossroads of the world and we really worked hard at showcasing its culture,” Anderson said. “The orientation of these facilities was very much done on purpose.”
Said Keas: “We wanted to make sure London is the show, not only for the spectators but for the TV audience. Incorporating all of these iconic buildings was an idea we came up with during the bid phase.”
Greenwich Park, for example, site of the equestrian and modern pentathlon, provides some of the most scenic views of London’s cityscape. Populous designed a 23,000-seat venue with a U-shaped bowl with the open end on the north side facing the Queens’ House, the former royals’ residence built in the 1600s. The 3.7-mile course itself runs by the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum.
Beach volleyball will be played within the confines of the Horse Guards Parade, site of several military ceremonies and former headquarters of the British Army. It recently played host to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, recognizing Queen Elizabeth’s six decades of ceremonial reign.
The parade grounds itself is framed by Whitehall, one of the city’s signature government buildings where Winston Churchill presided over cabinet war rooms during World War II, Anderson said. The 15,000-seat venue built for beach volleyball is similar in size to Wimbledon’s center court.
The marathon course takes runners past Big Ben and Parliament, and the cycling and triathlon layouts run along the Mall, a huge boulevard in front of Buckingham Palace and into Hyde Park.
For the archery competition, Populous designed a 6,500-seat “venue within a venue” at Lord’s Cricket Ground, a facility originally built in 1814. For the Olympics, the temporary stands were squeezed between the historic Pavilion clubhouse and the media center, a space-age-style structure constructed for the 1999 Cricket World Cup. Archery’s setup for the Games would be equal to installing temporary seats on the infield at Fenway Park between the press box and the Green Monster, Anderson said.
Three modern sports facilities in London will be used for the Games: Wembley Stadium (soccer), Wimbledon (tennis) and the O2 London (basketball).