Red Thread

The Paralympics come of age

The IOC’s signature on the landmark agreement with the IPC in Sydney 2001, linking the hosting of the Paralympic Games and the Olympics, was both hugely generous and characteristically far-sighted.

In exchange for abnegating their sponsorship rights and accepting a flat capped contribution from each Games, the IPC gained the guarantee of association with the world’s most powerful sports brand. Back in 2000, the agreement looked particularly generous. From the perspective of 2012, it looks particularly far-sighted.

In the mind of Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC, Beijing marked the coming of age of the Paralympian: ‘It was really in Beijing, to my mind, that Paralympians started to be proud to be Paralympians, and didn’t need to say ‘I’m an Olympian’’. And Sochi perhaps marks the coming of age of the IPC as a force for social change: ‘The changes in legislation to make Sochi as accessible as possible will create a template for the rest of Russia. Not that this is unique to Sochi. The Paralympic Games aren’t an end in themselves – they’re the beginning of the opportunity.’

But could London 2012 mark its coming of age commercially?  London 2012, with the obvious good graces of LOCOG, has seen a number of interesting developments.

The separation of broadcasting rights between BBC and C4 gave the Paralympics a broadcast partner who would be determined to keen to tell their story as powerfully as possible. More importantly, it created a commercial platform for the Paralympic Games which was not open to the Olympics in the UK, supporting the recruitment of Paralympic partners.

From a partnership perspective, the London Paralympic Games also offers powerful precedents for successor OCOGs. While Coke’s continued success in blocking the supermarket category cost LOCOG nearly £40 million, it opened a loophole of happiness which other OCOGs will be keen to copy. As Igor Stolyarov, himself an ex-Coker comments ‘London did brilliantly by acquiring Sainsbury’s as a Paralympic sponsor, a very smart move. The Sainsbury’s deal creates a real precedent.’

The agreement between the IOC and the IPC, extended this May until 2020 effectively incentivises the OCOG to be as commercially creative as possible around the Paralympics – as any funds raised for the Paralympics go directly to the OCOG, not the IPC. On this basis, we would expect future OCOGs to be attentive to the nimble contractual footwork of London 2012 – and use the Paralympic Games as a route to dodge Coke’s TOP firepower.

Sainsbury’s clever procurement clearly saved them roughly the same amount, enabling them to invest seriously in their Active Kids programme. Active Kids has been phenomenally successful, gives Sainsbury’s the right to claim to be the dominant brand playing in school sport – having channelled the equivalent of £115 million of sports equipment into schools since 2005. But like any 7 year old affinity programme, it needs constant reinvention to regain front of mind with consumers, and this was one of the strongest drivers for a 2012 partnership back in 2007, when Sainsbury’s was a Redmandarin client.

Sainsbury’s of course aren’t disclosing their activation budget, but with a platform which includes an ambition to introduce one million schoolchildren to Paralympic sport, David Beckham on film, a respectable C4 partnership – and a £10 million commitment to the UK School Games for the next four years, they’re not saving the change – and demonstrating a commitment to community which is both broader and deeper than any other London 2012 partner.

Weighting sponsorship investment towards activation, not rights is a sensible but still unusual position. In this case, Sainsbury’s judged – correctly in our opinion – that most people wouldn’t differentiate between association with the Olympic and Paralympic Games; and if they did, the differentiation would be positive. Sainsbury’s partnership campaign, which surely deserves any sponsorship award it’s entered for, will be a case study for the textbooks.

Curiously, Wolff Olins must also take some credit. The differences between the logos for the Olympic and Paralympic Games are minimal. The colourways obviously diverge, but no more than many Tier 1 Partners who pay for that very privilege. For anyone not versed in Olympic iconography and the ranking implications of a full colour Partner logo – Sainsbury’s is just another sponsor.

Anecdotally, the Paralympics isn’t working so well in London so far as client hospitality is concerned. Although spectators at the Beijing Games were effusive and enthusiastic, there is clearly a lingering perception that the Paralympic Games lack Olympic magic for business clients. Conversely, with respect to employee engagement, engagement with the Paralympics appears to be hugely powerful. In this instance, employee engagement is probably a more reliable indicator of consumer opinion: Sainsbury’s clearly think so.

The IPC’s active role echoes that of the IOC: to oversee the organisation of the Paralympic Games (as well as serving as the International Federation for nine sports). Its symbolic role however is arguably broader than that of the IOC – to represent the rights of athletes with disabilities, and by extension, all people with disabilities. The enormous relevance of the Paralympic metaphor lies of course in the struggle we each share to overcome our limitations. For Allianz, the power of this metaphor, and their ability to integrate it into messaging, more than compensates for having to take a back seat at the Games. In the words of Joseph Gross: ‘I am 100% convinced the IPC has a very positive future. I don’t expect it to be a fast-burner, but each Games, Beijing, London, Sochi, Rio, is going to advance the profile and the impact of the IPC. Managed well, I believe its relevance extends far beyond the disability community. It connects hugely with social values.’

In ‘Working the Olympics’, Xavier likened the IPC to the IOC’s younger brother: ‘You have one son who is already established, and you have the little one who is growing and wants to do things’. We’re led to understand that, with the encouragement of LOCOG, TOP partners will for the first time (unbelievably) maintain their presence throughout the Paralympics. Redmandarin believes the Paralympics are coming of age.

NB We’re assuming Coca-Cola will do some buddying up to the IPC and consider its relationship with the Paralympic Games going forward.

LOCOG’s sponsorship mistake

The Greenwash Gold campaign, which seized on Dow Jones and lumped together BP and Rio Tinto to create a rogue’s gallery of London 2012, signally failed to attract consumer support.

While LOCOG played the British card of staunch support extremely well, and the campaign has left barely a reputational scuff, one element though, Redmandarin would criticise: the bolt-on of Sustainability Partnership.

BMW, BP, BT, Cisco, EDF and GE all signed on the dotted line for the additional title – which arguably shows that, as a sales technique, it’s worked. But as a practice, it raises large questions. Partner categories and designations are the standard fare of the sponsorship package – but the title of Sustainability Partner is not a self-descriptor, it’s bestowed by LOCOG. And as much as LOCOG deny it in strictly legal terms, the word commonly used to describe this relationship is endorsement.

Offering this (let’s say) quasi-endorsement places LOCOG in the moral position of accepting responsibility for the creation and satisfaction of criteria which justify the title. Now we’ve no doubt that the PR machines of BP, BT, EDF and LOCOG can easily align behind clear sustainability messaging and proof-points. But it’s a mistake on three counts.

Count one: sustainability is fundamentally about integrated practice. It’s philosophically at odds with sustainability to designate specific partners. Okay, no big deal – but the action of selling a sustainability position to some partners both undermines the remaining partners’ ability to demonstrate sustainability – and in itself clearly creates a lightning rod for green campaigners, placing both OCOG and IOC in a defensive comms position.

Count two, it was unnecessary. The end and means argument of sales expedience hinges on whether it clinched the deals. But we know for a fact that it didn’t pull in GE, Cisco or BMW. BT slugged it out for the partner position with Orange – the title here wasn’t a driver. Certainly not BP, which was always destined to stump up as a solid British citizen and has a sophisticated understanding of sustainability communications (if not PR crisis management). For EDF, who knows, but the point is already won.

It’s not necessary because one critical benefit of Games partnership is that of partners being able to tell the story, as it unfolds, of the contribution they’re making to the staging of a successful event: sustainability stories and credit can only be created by actual sustainability activity.

Count three, it legitimises greenwashing. The notable elephant in the Park of London 2012 is EDF’s status as a major provider of nuclear energy in Europe. EDF has run a five year campaign to position itself as a friend of the environment – without publicly (to our knowledge) referencing the fact that 61.8% of EDF energy is nuclear generated – with its  own corporate commitment to renewable energy ranking in the bottom half of the UK’s major energy suppliers. EDF’s own Olympic journey has been greeted with cynicism and dismay at many stages by the green movement – the reaction possibly aggravated by the paid for position of Sustainability Partner.

There’s an argument, which prevails in some countries, that nuclear power is eminently sustainable – but this argument is not about the merits of nuclear power, it’s about sponsorship strategy and communications integrity. Redmandarin has found no evidence of EDF trying to advance the nuclear argument within its Olympic programme.

It claims to have introduced sustainability support materials to 5,000,000 schoolchildren across the UK: Redmandarin hasn’t  been able to study these (at the time of publication), but the page on ‘Nuclear power and a safer, cleaner world’ isn’t visible on the contents page. And I wonder how parents would feel about that?

This is LOCOG’s mistake. They sold the title of Sustainability Partner to, amongst others, a business which has at best mismanaged its 2012 campaign (because there was a better way) and at worst consistently abused the title throughout its consumer communications. It could have been worse, but it really wasn’t necessary in the first place.

It doesn’t help London 2012 and it certainly doesn’t help sponsorship.

* EDF has conducted a radical cleanse of its Team Green Britain Day Facebook page in the run up to 2012 – so the evidence of this is no longer visible.