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Volume 25 No. 88
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IOC’s New Tech Partners Collaborate, Compete At Same Time

Halfway through a tour of Intel’s tech wares at the Olympics, everyone got on a bus. The bus drove to a separate showcase run by KT Corp., the leading mobile provider in Korea, where Intel’s Olympics COO Julie Coppernoll turned the show over to a presenter clad in KT clothes.

KT showed us around its displays of what 5G connectivity will do for everything from entertainment to urban design. And then at the end, Coppernoll again took questions.

It was an unusual tag-team approach, but one that reflects the Olympics’ increasingly complicated, tech-focused sponsorship portfolio. Since the International Olympic Committee has started to seek sponsors that can both finance the Olympics and help organizers solve modern business problems, it’s turning more and more to diversified tech providers who are both competitors and cooperators, both b-to-b and b-to-c.

It’s a transition that’s required a new level of trust and attention to detail, experts said, because the backbone of sponsorship is still precisely defined, exclusive categories. While their natural instincts are to cooperate, fellow sponsors and the IOC watch closely to make sure they’re not encroaching on each other’s marketing turf.

Julie Coppernoll, chief operating officer of Olympics marketing, shows off a mobile network bay station with Intel hardware inside, which is submerged in mineral oil to protect it from the cold.
Photo: Ben Fischer

For instance: Intel can talk about its tech inside the coming 5G network, but demonstrating what it means for end users gets into KT’s rights as the domestic mobile provider category.

Another instance: Samsung’s massive showcase includes several virtual-reality experiences, but Samsung’s messaging on the VR must reference it being powered by its phone. This has taken on greater significance since Intel acquired the VR category last June.

Meanwhile, Visa and Fanatics teamed up with NBC on a feature that’s allowing Olympic viewers to buy the gear U.S. athletes are wearing on live broadcasts, but Chinese giant Alibaba has been the official e-commerce partner of the Olympics since January 2017. French IT giant Atos is the official IT company of the IOC, but Alibaba is the cloud-services rights holder and is promoting its ability to solve problems that Atos tackles now.

Anything that makes it to the Olympics has been closely vetted by the IOC for conflicts, but it’s a far more complex environment than classic sports marketing categories like property and casualty insurance or beer.

“As the IOC continues to bring on new tech partners and integrate new technologies into the Games, certainly it’s going to get a little bit more confusing, and the categories and the lines are going to get closer and blurred a little bit,” said Gary Pluchino, senior vice president of global partnerships at Endeavor.

These problems are not entirely new. Back in the 1990s, IBM was the Olympics’ technology partner, and at the time, some people believed that meant no one else could advertise their Olympic relationship on the internet, Pluchino said.

That’s similar to virtual reality today, where Intel has the rights to the underlying technology but Samsung is free to use VR to activate, as long as it’s demonstrating a function of the Samsung device. “Two years later, many sponsors will use VR in marketing their program, but that doesn’t mean they’ve made anyone’s category slimmer, it’s just that these categories are evolving,” Pluchino said.

A display of Alibaba’s planned “Smart Pass” app that will help Olympic visitors with tickets and planning.
Photo: Ben Fischer

The IOC says its categories are clearly defined but otherwise was not immediately available for an interview.

These finely defined categories, by their nature, don’t cover the full identity of the company in the way that “non-alcoholic beverages” encompasses Coca-Cola. Alibaba’s Alipay is a direct competitor to Visa in payment processing, but for the purposes of the Olympics, Alipay isn’t acknowledged. “Just because they have it doesn’t mean they can promote it,” said Hayle Chun, Pluchino’s partner as Endeavor vice president of global partnerships and Olympics.

The evolution has required more of the IOC, said Louis Vega, who leads Dow’s Olympic relationship. While not a tech company, Dow has been an IOC sponsor since 2010 and is a b-to-b company that depends on others to get its product to market. He said nonprofits and the government often don’t understand that businesses can be competitors and partners at the same time.

Also, he said, the sponsors themselves need to be sure of their position and how it connects to others’ before they sign up. “Hopefully your marketing rights match your strengths, and you know those strengths, and you’re very comfortable there,” Vega said. “And you’re comfortable knowing that Company X has a strength that might sound adjacent or similar, but it’s technologically very different.”