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Volume 23 No. 24
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BP gives Paralympians majority of spots in its Olympic marketing

Some Olympic marketing campaigns are ready to put Paralympians in a starring role in 2016.

BP America will announce within weeks a seven-athlete roster of ambassadors that includes five Paralympians and two traditional Olympians, believed to be the first time a corporate sponsor has selected a majority-Paralympic team for its Olympic-related marketing. A week earlier, BMW disclosed plans to develop a new high-tech race wheelchair for Team USA, using its engineering prowess that built a bobsled for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Marketers’ enthusiasm for Paralympians has been building since the early 2000s ­— McDonald’s made a breakthrough in 2004 when it put amputee sprinter Marlon Shirley on cups — but 2016 is shaping up as another watershed as strategies move beyond mere inclusion.

BP, a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor since 2010, decided to turn heavily to Paralympians after its employees suggested they would be a better fit for event appearances and the company’s values, said George Bauernfeind, BP head of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic programs, who consults with regional operators and division executives to set strategy and sign athletes. BP came close to parity in 2012 with five Olympians and four Paralympians.

“This is not me saying, ‘Here, you must have this athlete,’” Bauernfeind said. “These are our businesses, our divisions, our functional groups saying, ‘Here’s the type of athlete I want that fits with my specific objective for my specific event.’ So … through that, [we] have actually skewed more Paralympics than Olympics.”

The Paralympics were founded in 1960 but stayed in the shadows for decades. In 2005, the USOC took over management of the national governing body for American Paralympians and later integrated marketing rights into its Olympic packages so that sponsors get access to both. Meanwhile, wounded veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have become a prominent part of the Paralympic movement, adding another appealing element to marketers.

“We’ve always had a very strong diversity and inclusion agenda, in addition to veterans,” Bauernfeind said. “When we do announce, you’ll see we do have some veterans in the mix.”

In 2014, NBC broke new ground by airing the 2014 Winter Paralympics live for the first time, with sponsorship from BP, BMW, Citi, The Hartford, Liberty Mutual and Procter & Gamble. NBC is expected to expand coverage in Rio but hasn’t signed deals with sponsors yet.