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Volume 21 No. 1
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McDonald's gets kids in the Games

Four years of discussions with IOC gets TOP sponsor rare Olympic access

The boy closed one eye and tried to balance an arrow on his left hand. He squinted as he pulled back the string of a bow. Then he let go and watched as the arrow floated toward a target 20 feet away and sank into the ground in front of it.

Wiremu Knowles failed to hit the target, but it didn’t matter. The 6-year-old Australian was at the tail end of three of the most incredible days of his life at the Olympics, and he was having a great time. He even got to hold the silver medal won by the U.S. archery team.

It was all part of a new program developed by International Olympic Committee TOP sponsor McDonald’s for the London Games. The company brought more than 200 children to the Olympics and, for the first time, worked out unprecedented access to take them behind the scenes so that they could try archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground and play beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade.

The ability to walk along the fields of competition did not come easy, as the program was four years in the making. John Lewicki, McDonald’s head of global alliances, began asking the IOC in 2008 to expand the restaurant company’s sponsorship assets so that it could provide a unique experience for kids at the Olympics.

It was modeled after an activation the company had used successfully during its sponsorship of the FIFA World Cup. As part of that deal, it is able to have 1,400 children from around the world walk onto the field with soccer players before matches. It allowed them to promote an active lifestyle, reward customers and create brand ambassadors for life.

But the company was never able to translate those similar rights to its IOC deal. McDonald’s brought a few hundred children to the Beijing Games in 2008, and while it took them to several events and tourist sites such as the Great Wall, none of them were able to step on the field of play or meet many athletes.

“Quite honestly, anyone could do that,” said Lewicki, whose company is spending $100 million from 2009 to 2012 as an official IOC sponsor. “You didn’t have to be a sponsor, so we started asking how can we make this better.”

McDonald’s global sports marketing executive Brian Goldstein started talking with the IOC about a variety of ideas. Could children escort the flag bearers in the opening and closing ceremony? Could they escort dignitaries in the medal ceremony presentation? Could they bring children onto the swim deck or volleyball court and let them meet athletes or play the sports?

A child takes a shot at archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
The last proposal got the most traction, but wasn’t easy to pull off. The IOC was reluctant. It runs clean venues that are free of sponsors, so bringing children wearing McDonald’s shirts onto the field of play created some discomfort. Plus, local organizing committees are focused on keeping venues secure during the Games. But the property and sponsor eventually worked out an agreement.

The IOC didn’t rewrite its McDonald’s contract to include the right to bring children into venues, but the IOC worked with the London Olympic organizing committee to make sure McDonald’s got access.

“There’s been a real shift as we integrated sponsor management inside the IOC,” said Timo Lumme, the IOC’s director of TV and marketing services. “We felt there was a lot more value we could add. We try to dimensionalize the relationship beyond just being the basic sponsorship.”

Last week, McDonald’s brought the first of five waves of 50 children, each of whom can bring one parent, to London for its “Champions of Play” program. The initiative promotes active living and is central to McDonald’s effort to combat public perception that it contributes to rising obesity.

Each child was selected from their host region. Australians like Knowles were selected after writing an essay about teamwork or overcoming a challenge in sports. A local TV station showed up at their homes to let them know they had won.

Over three days in London, they walked on the swim deck at the aquatic center, visited Lord’s Cricket Ground and stood where Olympic archers would later fire arrows, and spent an hour playing beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade. In most cases, the visits took place on the day of competition.

Their trip ended with Olympians — U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, U.S. speedskater Joey Cheek and Italian canoer Antonio Rossi — giving each child a medal.

Lewicki said the London Games program is a great step forward in McDonald’s Olympic sponsorship.

“Now we move forward to Sochi and Rio and look at how we can fine-tune it and make it better,” he added.