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Volume 21 No. 13

In Depth

By early 2016, nearly a year had passed since Toyota signed its blockbuster global sponsorship deal with the International Olympic Committee, but the automaker was still stuck on a theme for its campaign.


Top internal marketers on two continents, along with senior leaders from both Saatchi & Saatchi and Dentsu, were searching for an idea that could spur a brand evolution for Toyota from car company to “the human movement company.”


The entire point of Toyota’s aggressive move into the Olympics’ mobility category was to showcase concept products like Project Blaid, a wearable device that helps blind people navigate their immediate surroundings, or a human support robot for the elderly. But the blue-chip creative team — the first time Dentsu and Saatchi ever worked together — insisted the campaign focus on people, not products.

“At first it was about putting people on a level playing field,” recalls Jason Schragger, Saatchi & Saatchi chief creative officer. “But people don’t want to get to zero. They want to get somewhere incredible. We looked at amputees who have prosthetics that were made for walking, and they climb a mountain in it. It was never designed to climb a mountain, but the people made it happen.”


A series of meetings in Los Angeles and Tokyo and contributions from Toyota teams in more than 20 countries led to “Start The Impossible.”


But that still wasn’t right. “The Impossible” sounds like someone else’s problem. In the early summer of 2016, they changed one word and nailed it: “Start Your Impossible.”


In a single stroke, Schragger recalls, they blended the Olympic motto of faster, higher, stronger with a flexible, personal call to action. It even dovetailed with Toyota Motor North America’s more practical “Let’s Go Places” tagline.


“It felt a lot more powerful when there was an onus on you to do something,” Schragger said. “Everyone’s got their little side hustle, or their little dream, or something they want to achieve, that in any point in time can feel impossible. It’s incredible how many times we all can manage to achieve that thing that a week ago seemed absolutely out of reach.”

Today, “Start Your Impossible” anchors Toyota’s first Olympics in the International Olympic Committee’s TOP (The Olympic Partner) program, after it had to wait for several country-level car deals to expire after Rio 2016 to claim global rights. The campaign spawned 10 television commercials with versions running in 40 markets, a digital-social campaign, local and regional commercials and, not insignificantly, the decentralized company’s first corporate initiative to touch its approximately 370,000 employees.


It’s still the top of the first inning for this campaign, designed to carry over multiple Olympics, possibly through the end of its current contract after Paris 2024. But so far, Toyota is executing a classically ambitious Olympic marketing campaign, in the vein of Visa and Procter & Gamble before it, said Bob Heussner, CEO of StrongBridge Sponsorship and a top former consultant to former U.S. Olympic Committee and London 2012 sponsor BMW.


“This is not a toe in the water, it’s a full-body plunge,” Heussner said.


Going beyond the car 


When the first “Start Your Impossible” commercial aired in November, the market noticed what wasn’t anywhere in the creative: a car. The company says its key performance indicators on its sponsorship are not sales related.


But it’s not so radical, insists Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor North America. He says Toyota is just responding to changing notions of what an advanced manufacturer ought to be able to provide. “They almost expect us to do more because of the technology and expertise, the quality and dependability of the products,” he said. “They believe there’s probably more we can add to society.”


Toyota is not alone in an auto industry that seems to be on the verge of radical disruption. Its decision to dub itself “the human movement company” comes nearly a year after Ford’s “Go Further” Super Bowl commercial that touched a similar tone.


But by buying the Olympics’ first global car deal, Toyota bought a unique platform to tell that story, experts said. “Everyone is talking mobility now,” Heussner said. “But what Toyota’s going to be able to do with the Olympics is tell that story with more power and bring it to life in a way their competitors frankly can’t.”


The Games deals are both hyperintense for three weeks every two years, and a broad, long-term platform, he added. In February, Toyota is taking advantage of having media time and global attention on the same event for 17 days, giving it the chance to run spots that both set the branding stage for “mobility” and show off the skunk works mobility products.


By doing secondary deals with the U.S. Olympic Committee, its four largest winter sports governing bodies and 19 Olympic or Paralympic athletes, Toyota also has staked a long-term claim to be the only carmaker in the Olympic movement.


Later in 2015, it also signed a deal with the International Paralympic Committee. The Paralympics, a far smaller deal financially, offer even better message alignment than the Olympics and numerous opportunities to demonstrate new products with disabled athletes. “Para is just as, if not more, important to us,” said Chris Schultz, general manger of Olympic/Paralympic marketing for Toyota North America.


Prior to Toyota, the auto category was always sold by individual Games organizers and national Olympic committees. That meant the global brands always had a chance to one-up each other the next time around. But, Heussner noted, Toyota’s 2015 deal covers Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022 and Paris 2024, and gives it the right of first negotiation to extend into Los Angeles ’28.


It also gives the technology that the company is promoting a chance to actually make it to market.


“This is smart not only from an offensive point of view, but a defensive point of view,” Heussner said. “Now you’ve got so many platforms the others don’t.”


Working together


Aside from a brand shift, Toyota President Akio Toyoda had a secondary goal in mind for the Olympics: bringing the 370,000-strong global workforce together, aligning them under a single theme and testing their capacity to work together. That goes for its agencies, too.


In that sense, Toyota calls to mind other employee-focused Olympic programs of the past, like when UPS spent 60 percent of its Olympic budget simply to boost morale among its employees, or in 1994 when John Hancock Insurance added $60 million in revenue in a single year by making Olympic attendance a sales incentive.


Everyone is talking mobility now. But what Toyota’s going to be able to do with the Olympics is tell that story with more power and bring it to life in a way their competitors frankly can’t.
Bob Heussner
CEO, StrongBridge Sponsorship

“A lot of companies at the CEO level think, ‘I wonder how the organization would react to something like this, a central theme?’” said Rob Prazmark, the former IMG Olympic sponsorship sales head. “That’s part of the reasons they make these global decisions. It really is a rallying point for the entire corporation to get behind. And there’s some key learnings that come out of that.”


Those early brainstorming groups earned a new code name, Colympics, to highlight how extraordinary it was. In one room, Toyota corporate marketing division GM Susumu Matsuda, Toyota North America’s Hollis, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Schragger and executive director Al Reid, and their Dentsu counterparts, Executive Creative Director Keiichi Higuchi and Executive Director Taira Kimura, met on the same project for the first time.


“We got rid of agency names and just created one team,” Hollis said.


After starting with the Japanese and American leadership, the group held two multiday retreats that included research and consultation from 20 more markets globally. And over the course of 2017, marketers learned to adjust to the painstaking, slow work of translation, adapting messages for cultural relevancy, learning how best to deliver the global campaign with key Olympic teams and athletes in each country.


“There has never been a global marketing campaign initiated at Toyota, so for us the opportunity to really create new processes, a new infrastructure, work across numerous regions across the world, has been a fantastic opportunity to figure out a way in which we can communicate one unified message globally,” said Dedra DeLilli, Toyota’s Olympics marketing group manager.


‘Let’s Go Places’


Since “Start Your Impossible” launched, the North American division has staffed up to handle another major sports marketing initiative. Hollis tapped Schultz, the longtime GM of Toyota’s New York region, to run its Olympic marketing and hired DeLilli from TD Ameritrade, where she ran its USOC sponsorship until it expired last year, as his top deputy. Longtime agency MKTG led the creation of the domestic marketing plan.


Stateside, Toyota is sticking with its “Let’s Go Places” tagline for the Games in a more literal, sales-focused pitch.

“The beauty is, [‘Start Your Impossible’ and ‘Let’s Go Places’] don’t fight each other,” said David Grant, MKTG president of sports and entertainment. “They’re complimentary messages, when you think about what ‘Let’s Go Places’ really means. It’s not ‘Let’s go from point A to point B in a literal sense.’”


In one example titled “It Takes a Village,” the viewer sees images of speedskater Sugar Todd’s life during her training days, with the extensive help of her family and neighbors, who all drive Toyotas.

Before even Schultz and DeLilli were on board, Toyota had secured title sponsorship of U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Grand Prix series of Olympic qualifiers. It’s added deals with U.S. Speedskating, U.S. Figure Skating and extended an old deal with USA Hockey.


The goal in signing those governing body deals, Grant said, was to give dealerships a wide slate of options for sports, athletes and events they can leverage in local or regional sales initiatives. Local dealerships will be given creative templates to extend the campaign into showrooms and local airwaves, too. While the message gets more sales-oriented as it gets closer to the consumer, they want all of it to tie back to “human movement.”


“You will definitely see an integration of vehicles, but it’s very much about the role that the vehicle plays in the journey of the athletes as well as Toyota’s commitment to help support athletes on their journey to the Games,” DeLilli said.


The future


Pyeongchang is just the starting point, and a subdued one at that. Toyota will coordinate media for its sponsored athletes in South Korea, but it won’t play the role most classically associated with Olympic car sponsors — IOC officials and athletes will be using Hyundai and Kia vehicles instead of Toyotas. A year after the IOC signed Toyota, Toyota waived its on-the-ground rights back to Pyeongchang organizers to sell to Korean manufacturers.


Executives call this first Olympics a time to work out the kinks in an eight-year plan. “We know we’ll probably make some mistakes,” Schultz said. “We plan to learn a lot and prepare better and execute better around Tokyo 2020.”


By then, Toyota hopes, it will be able to sell some of those mobility devices in the same way it sells cars today. But Schultz is noncommittal, knowing that research and development doesn’t move at the same scheduled pace as marketing.


Toyota, which paid a reported $835 million for its IOC deal, entered 2017 as the world’s second-largest car seller by volume, narrowly falling behind Volkswagen AG in 2016 after holding the title for the previous four years. Last year in the U.S., Toyota’s market share ticked up from 14 to 14.1 percent, placing it again third behind Ford and General Motors, according to Wall Street Journal data. 


But Schultz said Toyota’s initial expectations are not about sales. “The one KPI [key performance indicator] that I think we’re most passionate about is to have our brand become a loved brand, beyond a liked brand,” he said.


IOC President Thomas Bach (right) and Jack Ma, chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, celebrate the company’s new Olympic partnership in 2017.
Photo: ap images

Midway through a major evolution in its sponsorship portfolio, the International Olympic Committee is welcoming three new global sponsors at once in Pyeongchang. 


That’s a double-edged sword for the local Korean organizers and the IOC, who depend on enthusiastic corporate marketers for some of the heavy promotional lifting, said Rob Prazmark, the former IMG executive who sold Olympic sponsorships in the 1990s and 2000s.


“You love first-time sponsors because they’re into it — they throw everything at it,” Prazmark said. “It’s a new, shiny thing and they really, really get behind it. It’s getting into the second- or third-contract renewal period that’s the most difficult. Then the bloom is off the rose.”


On the other hand, they’re still learning and likely see the relatively small, relatively obscure Pyeongchang Games as a trial run for the really big show, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, where they’ll be tested in a much higher-stakes environment.


“It’s a smaller Games and they can test their theories, strategies and tactics,” Prazmark said, “Because they’ll really throttle up for Tokyo, and take their key learnings from Pyeongchang and apply it there. Tokyo is going to be a major, major event. Then you’ve got Beijing and China, massive market.”


The IOC hasn’t welcomed multiple new global sponsors at a Winter Games since 2006, when General Electric and Lenovo first started. Much like today, those deals were seen as more focused on the Summer Games two years later in Beijing than the Torino Winter Games in Italy. 


The three new sponsors — Toyota, Intel and Alibaba — are each in a different spot. Toyota signed in early 2015 and has had the time to assemble a full-fledged, global marketing campaign to exploit the Olympics, even though it won’t be providing cars on the ground.

You love first-time sponsors because they’re into it — they throw everything at it. It’s a new, shiny thing and they really, really get behind it. It’s getting into the second- or third-contract renewal period that’s the most difficult. Then the bloom is off the rose.
Rob Prazmark
Olympic sponsorship expert, on the first-time Olympic sponsors in Pyeonchang

Even though it signed its sponsorship deal just eight months ago, Intel has scrambled to put together a VIP hospitality program, a showcase at the Gangneung Olympic Park, an esports exhibition and a slate of athlete endorsers, along with a media campaign to promote its technical contributions. But Aicha Evans, its chief strategy officer, says they’re trying to stay humble and not over-promise considering how new to the IOC’s sponsorship roster they are.


Alibaba has not yet marketed its Olympics deal in the U.S. and declined a request to discuss its campaign in detail prior to a launch in the coming weeks — remarkably late by Olympic sponsor standards. Alibaba’s 12-year deal centers around a long-term project to build an Olympic e-commerce site and take over all cloud computing.


So far in China, Alibaba’s Tmall e-commerce site hosted an “Online WinterFest” that’s offered a sale on thousands of winter sports items from other IOC sponsors. In Korea, it also will have a showcase at Gangneung Olympic Park with a futuristic theme of how Alibaba’s cloud computing will improve the Olympics, and it will take the Games as a chance to better develop its identity outside its home Chinese market.


“We look forward to showcasing our brand on a global stage and showing how we’ll leverage Alibaba technology and innovations — from cloud to e-commerce — to help transform the future of the Games,” said Jennifer Kuperman, Alibaba head of international corporate affairs, in a prepared statement.


The Olympics helped popularize color television half a century ago, and Intel Chief Strategy Officer Aicha Evans believes the Games will soon usher in a new “golden age of technology” for sports viewers.


Up first in the spotlight: 5G mobile connectivity, which Pyeongchang 2018 local sponsor Korean Telecom has promised to unveil next month at the Games. Also next month, Olympic Broadcasting Services and NBC promise 55 hours of live virtual reality coverage with unprecedented production values and customization. There are drones, too.


Intel’s marketing challenge: To become synonymous with these cutting-edge developments in how the world consumes media while playing a back-end role for its better-known retail partners that actually bring the product to market. Last year, it signed a seven-year deal with the International Olympic Committee for global sponsorship rights to be certain it could promote itself under a unified Olympics message.


NBC will deliver Intel’s True VR technology to viewers during the Pyeongchang Games.
Photo: INTEL

“When you’re working in the back end, it’s an interesting situation,” Evans said. “Because you’re bringing technology that the users, the Games or the athletes benefit from, so you’ve got to be sure that you get attribution for that.”


That means a lot of planning and cooperation, and not much going it alone.


“You have to do it in a collaborative way with your partners,” Evans said. “So you’re going to see Intel within the Intel showcase, but you’re also going to see Intel represented at other partners’ booths and events and so on.”


In its debut in Korea, Intel will have a showcase pavilion at the Gangneung Olympic Park, and also will operate a lounge at the athletes village. The company has signed five athlete spokespeople, will run a hospitality program and will execute an esports tournament just before the opening ceremony. GMR is running Intel’s on-site programming.


In the run-up, Intel provided an example of its co-marketing with other Olympic corporate partners with its Jan. 8 announcement of its True VR plans for Pyeongchang.


In a coordinated release with NBC, Intel got most of the credit for the work, while NBC reminded viewers that it would be the one to actually deliver the product.


In the weeks prior to the Games, Intel will launch an ad campaign with the tagline “Experience the Moment.” Creative hasn’t aired yet, but the campaign will promote its Intel processors that power the 5G network which, for instance, will allow streaming interactive HD video in the figure skating arena.


Evans said the Olympic deal is allowing Intel to treat the Games as a single corporate initiative on the project side, too. It grew out of the wireless division’s work with KT, which led Intel CEO Brian Krzanich to wonder why Intel wasn’t doing more with the Games.


“When we looked at all that, and all the technologies like VR, the technologies like drones we’re working on, we said, ‘Wait, we can go a lot broader,’” Evans said. Rather than just take the Olympics as a one-off project, he said, why not “use it as a showcase, as a way to deploy on a larger scale emerging technologies? We also looked at doing it over a longer period of time.”


Now, what started as a project for the wireless division involves seven major business groups, including Intel Sports (the division that’s done its recent pro sports league deals in the U.S.), and is being run from the corporate strategy office.


Intel has developed its Olympics campaign with remarkable speed. Many major Olympic sponsors spend years developing an activation plan for a particular Games, but Intel didn’t sign with the IOC until last June. 


“We’re very humble,” Evans said. “Korea is something of a training ground for us. It’s a multiyear partnership and we hope to build upon it in the future.”


Photo: getty images

Jamie Anderson

Agents: Amy Stanton and Denege Prudhomme, Stanton & Co.
Portfolio: Audi, Beats, Comcast, Dakine, Dragon Herbs, Gnu, GoPro, Kettle Brand, MilkPEP, Monster, Navitas, Oakley, Procter & Gamble, Ralph Lauren, Sierra at Tahoe, United, Visa
Breakdown: The 2014 Sochi slopestyle gold medalist has been a fixture on the snowboarding circuit for more than a decade, but also has found success as a health-and-wellness spokeswoman for lifestyle brands. She burnished her branding with a 2014 appearance on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and demonstrating her clout, she more recently negotiated an exception to the U.S. Ski & Snowboard deal with Toyota that allowed her to sign a lucrative personal deal with Audi. 

Photo: getty images

Lindsey Vonn

Alpine skiing
Mark Ervin, IMG
Portfolio: Briko, Head, Leki, Oakley, Procter & Gamble/Bounty, Red Bull, Rolex, TheraBand, Under Armour, Topps
Breakdown: Easily the country’s most famous female Winter Olympian, Vonn has been in the public eye since making her first Olympics in 2002. She missed the 2014 Sochi Games with an injury and has had several other setbacks, but she appears to be healthy heading into Pyeongchang. In November, Under Armour released a signature Vonn ski apparel line, yet again showing that Vonn is capable of anchoring major initiatives, not merely sticking with the usual Olympic marketing playbook.

Photo: getty images

Gus Kenworthy

Michael Spencer, Wasserman
Portfolio: 24 Hour Fitness, Atomic, Chobani, Comcast, Deloitte, Monster, Procter & Gamble/Head & Shoulders, Ralph Lauren, Samsung, Smith, Toyota, United, Visa
Breakdown: Kenworthy is the big breakout marketing star of these Games, adding 10 new deals with Olympic sponsors in the past year. In addition to his Sochi silver medal, camera-ready smile and outgoing personality, he’s perhaps the most prominent openly gay athlete in America right now, which has only helped as brands look for a diversity message. (Editor’s note: Kenworthy had not qualified for the U.S. team as of press time. The team was scheduled to be finalized Jan. 21.)

Photo: getty images

Elana Meyers Taylor

Patrick Quinn, Chicago Sports & Entertainment Partners
Portfolio: 24 Hour Fitness, BMW, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Deloitte, Procter & Gamble, Topps
Breakdown: Hoping to medal at a third consecutive Olympics, the women’s bobsled pilot brings a natural grace and cheer to her work as a spokeswoman. Brands love her business sense, too — her post-athletic career goal is to become CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and she understands the finer points of the corporate side of the Games.

Photo: getty images

Nathan Chen

Figure skating
Yuki Saegusa, IMG
Portfolio: Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Nike, United Airlines
Breakdown: Chen doesn’t stack up to some others in terms of raw number of deals, but watch this space closely. He’s just 18 years old and his precocity in dealing with the media and brands is surpassed only by his precocity on the ice. Skating experts believe he’s a serious contender for a gold medal. If he delivers, his stock will skyrocket.

Photo: getty images

Hilary Knight

Ice hockey
Dan Levy and Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Wasserman
Portfolio: Bauer, Chobani, Comcast, Deloitte, GoPro, Nike, Nulo Pet Food, Red Bull, Visa, Topps
Breakdown: The best-known member of the women’s hockey team, Knight is a two-time silver medalist and seven-time world champion. She’s also a vocal advocate for gender parity in sports, and played a key role in the women’s team’s successful gambit last spring to improve its compensation by threatening to sit out the world championships.

Photo: getty images

Shaun White

Chris Hart and Ryan Hayden, United Talent Agency
Portfolio: Air + Style, Beats, Big Bear Mountain Resort, Mammoth Resorts, go90, Halfpops
Breakdown: A two-time halfpipe Olympic gold medalist, White is synonymous with his sport and is showing little evidence of decline in his 30s. Since childhood, he’s been a sports marketing star and a lifestyle icon, racking up an extraordinary range of sponsorships and other business deals. He’s been the majority owner of the Air + Style snowboarding/concert tour since 2014 and acquired a minority stake in Mammoth Resorts in 2016. 

Photo: getty images

Jessie Diggins

Cross country skiing
Patrick Quinn, Chicago Sports & Entertainment Partners
Portfolio: Bose, Bioenergy Ribose, Comcast, Hershey, Kate’s Real Food, Nuun, Podiumwear, Rudy Project, Salomon, Sledge, Slumberland, Smucker’s/Folgers/Milkbone, Swix, Topps
Breakdown: Part of the women’s team that appears to be on the verge of delivering the United States’ first Olympic medal in the sport, Diggins has quietly amassed a large sponsorship roster during her nine-year career. This year, she’s added blue-chip domestic Olympic partners Comcast, Hershey and J.M. Smucker Co. to her large endemic roster, and has grabbed coverage in media outlets unaccustomed to cross country skiers, like Cosmopolitan.

Photo: getty images

Chloe Kim

Lowell Taub and Lis Moss, CAA Sports
Portfolio: Burton, Laneige, Mammoth, Mondelez, Monster, Nike, Oakley, Samsung, Toyota, Visa
Breakdown: You’d be hard-pressed to create a more promising brand spokeswoman in a lab. Born in Long Beach, Kim oozes California cool, speaks three languages, is still just 17 years old and has extended family still living in the host country of South Korea. And by the way, she’s no up-and-comer — she’s a gold-medal favorite who would have qualified for the Sochi Games at 13 if not for minimum age restrictions.

Photo: getty images

Mikaela Shiffrin

Alpine skiing
Kilian Albrecht
Portfolio: Atomic, Barilla, Bose, Leki, Longines, Oakley, Red Bull, Reusch, Visa, Westin riverfront athletic club
Breakdown: The 22-year-old has not signed many new deals specifically for the Olympics, because she spent most of her time trying to evolve from a slalom specialist to an all-purpose contender. But she’s already got a full roster of long-term corporate relationships, one gold medal and could leave Pyeongchang with a few more. Expect to see Shiffrin for a long time to come.