• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

February 1994. Lillehammer: The first Winter Olympic Games to be held in a different year from the Summer Games.

And after being involved for 30 years, Xerox finally became a full TOP Partner.

A TOP participant, without discretionary budget.

Olympic sponsorship is an expensive, complex commitment. And getting value from participation is not guaranteed.

There are two factors that play against you.

Factor #1: the multiple tiers of deep pockets. At Lillehammer, there were three levels:

a) Birkenbeiner - nine sponsors for the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee (LOOC). Remember, a Games is awarded to a city/town, not a country. And the town needs to get infrastructure in place.

b) TOP - The Olympic Partner programme, seven long-term sponsors aligned to the Olympic Movement, not to a specific Games.

c) Olympic Suppliers - seventeen companies in 1994, with a list including timekeeping and trains, meat, dairy, chocolate, margarine and salads, crackers and snacks.

In case you've forgotten, New Energy was 'the official Olympic candy bar'.

Factor #2: in line with the Olympic spirit, no sponsor logo is allowed to appear at any Olympic sporting venue.

So millions of dollars buy you the rights to be associated with the Olympics, but not to be actually seen at the Olympics on billions of TV screens.

And aside from summarising your story in the corporate material written for other potential sponsors, the Olympic family will not tell anyone about you.

In short, once you've bought your ticket to the ball, you have play your own music.

And it's hard work. Consider this:

Three weeks before the Lillehammer Games started, US market research found that 34% of the population had no idea that an Olympic Games was about to start, and 65% couldn't identify Norway as the host nation.

Even when there was awareness, it was easy to get confused. With an 'aided' awareness question, 68% did acknowledge VISA as a Partner.

Then again, 52% agreed that it was AMEX.

At Lillehammer, with 33 organizations elbowing for metaphorical airtime, confusion wasn't unusual.

Without doubt, Coca Cola held the gold medal for leveraging its participation - and is still reining champion. Sponsor since 1928, Coke's strategy has always been very simple:

Buy the rights to use the Olympic rings and the Games logo, then spend three times as much telling everyone. Printing on cans, on bottles, on vending machines; on lapel pins, on adverting, on point of sale; on lorries, on crates, on packaging.

At a Winter Olympics, Coca Cola wants you to know they support it, even if you're in Chad or Honduras.

We - the vast, over-resourced Xerox team of two - saw the bottomless kit bag of Coke campaign materials at a TOP conference a few months before the Games. Partly a "thank you dinner for the Olympic family", mostly a "check out that no one is planning to parachute into TV coverage wearing a sponsor logo".

We were okay with that. Because we had nada. No way in Norway.

After a blizzard of Coke polar bear animations, Kodak (remember them?) showed us a very different approach. At the Games, the primary audience weren't the happy snappers, but the 650 photojournalists there to work. Kodak set up and ran two photo processing labs, in which they expected to develop and print 700k pictures.

All part of keeping the Olympic machine ticking over.

Indeed, that was Xerox's reasoning for its long-term TOP deal: $10m cash, $20m value in kind. At each Games, the company would provide hardware and engineering support, as if servicing a major organization operating under a global microscope.

At Lillehammer, that meant 40 industrial-strength copiers, 600 telefax machines, and 60 engineers.

In a world before email and text, an event as complicated as an Olympic Games couldn't function without document copies and faxes.

Making that happen was the epitome of the Corporation's values: good citizenship and doing 'the right thing'.

Also typical was the assumption that by doing the right thing, the world would get to hear about it. Everyone knows 'Xerox' right? It'll get talked about.

Hence, no budget.*

My colleague and I sat in the Lillehammer conference room, listening to plans for Bausch & Lomb's Ray Bans on the slopes, VISA's visitor campaign, Panasonic's audio-visual presentations and in-store offers. All using the Games as a platform to reach millions of consumers.

And a long time before Microsoft sat on a desk in every home, and long-long time before every home PC had its own printer, tech 'branding' was really B2B not B2C.

As our turn for a dog-and-pony approached, we had no campaign to show. No beautiful ski people or sun-sparkling soft drinks shown in crisp 'keep it with Kodak' pictures.

We had copiers.

Then my colleague reminded me of something he'd brought to review and sign-off. A large photo of a ski jumper, an ice hockey goalkeeper and a speed skater - the cover artwork for our forthcoming company magazine.

An edition carrying two themes - Lillehammer and the Environment.

I said earlier that Xerox was a good citizen. That was certainly true environmentally, way before it was fashionable. Twenty-something years ago it operated a re-manufacturing plant, replaced felled trees, and recycled plastic, metal, glass, and paper.

Yet very few people, even in the company, knew the full story.

Even fewer at our TOP meeting said anything about LOOC deciding to drag The Olympic Movement into the late C20th, and its commitment to make Lillehammer the first 'Green Games'.

Hence the two stories were covered in the January 1994 edition.

The cover of the magazine was all we needed at the meeting. When you don't have the things that that everyone already has, find the one thing that everyone still wants.

No one among the budget-rich consumer brands had factored the Green Games into their campaigns. They all looked at each other with unforgettable 'WTF' expressions.

Rubbing salt in the wounds, the LOOC Marketing Director asked how the environmental thread was woven into their sponsorship programmes.

Coca Cola was up first, ready to buy its way out of a very sticky corner.

"I'd like to take a page in the Xerox magazine, so that we carry a collective message in a very eco-friendly way".

Full marks for quick thinking.

"We have an environment strategy too, " said VISA, less convincingly.

"And us", said Kodak. "I'm sure we can produce outstanding imagery to support the environment message."

By the end of the day, four of our fellow TOP III Partners had signed up and agreed a more-than-generous price per page.

The magazine was originally going to 20,000 employees across Europe. That TOP day, it morphed into a 150,000 print run, to be delivered to every hotel and every room, every VIP and every volunteer at Lillehammer.

To reinforce the Green Games, and show what corporate partners can do together.

All paid for by OPM: Other Peoples' Marketing.

* Xerox dropped its Olympic global sponsorship in 2004, after the Athens Games. "This is a very large investment to make in the Olympics. If we can focus those dollars in other marketing areas, that's good for the bottom line."

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