Why haven’t Canadian brands pulled back on the Olympics?

As sponsors distance themselves from the Games in Japan, local advertisers have kept the focus on cheering on the athletes themselves.

Earlier this week, Toyota announced that it was pulling its Olympic-themed ads from broadcasts of the Games in Japan. That decision came as CEOs of prominent Japanese companies like Panasonic, Asahi and Fujitsu announced they would not be attending Friday morning’s opening ceremonies.

That is because opposition to holding the Olympics this year has been building as Japan faces a surge in COVID-19 cases, and a lack of popular support has convinced companies to distance themselves from an event they sponsored.

Beyond putting amateur athletes at risk, the management of the safety measures has been put into question as stories emerge of things like a Paralympian being denied the opportunity to bring and essential care worker along with her, or a swimmer that had to leave her breastfeeding child at home. That’s on top of questions of the water quality certain athletes will be facing, gender disparities between revealing uniforms and criticisms about the environmental impact of big, international events like the Olympics.

But while companies are downplaying their connection to the Games within Japan, where opposition is strongest, the same doesn’t seem to be true elsewhere.

Of the Canadian Olympic sponsors strategy has reached out to, none have made any changes to their marketing plans around this year’s Games. That seems to mirror what is happening in other markets: in the U.S., NBCUniversal told The Wall Street Journal it had not received any requests from its advertisers to pull Olympic ads from its broadcasts. Toyota, for its part, is still running its Olympic-themed ad in markets outside of Japan.

David Kincaid, founder and managing partner of Level5 Strategy, knows about Olympic marketing, having been one of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s major sponsors during his time as EVP of marketing at Labatt. And he isn’t surprised that Canadian brands haven’t changed their plans.

That’s because sponsors are usually not sponsoring the Games themselves, but the Canadian Olympic Committee and its athletes. The only exception are situations like the 1988 Games in Calgary, where Labatt and other sponsors had a role in helping the host country stage the event, which is why the distancing this year is mostly happening within Japan.

“From a Canadian sponsor standpoint, my dollars are going towards supporting the Canadian team, even if they are competing at an event that hasn’t been well-organized,” Kincaid says. “The preparation that goes into these kinds of campaigns is huge, both in terms of time and resources, so these brands are committed. If it emerges that the Canadian team wasn’t following health protocols, that might be enough to get them to rethink things, because that’s behaviour of the Canadian team. But that’s not going to happen, so staying committed to the cleanest part of a messy situation is the way brands are going to see their commitment through.”

The reasoning from Canadian advertisers for staying the course echoes this – in addition to expressing their confidence that public health and safety measures would be followed, they universally expressed to strategy that they would be continuing to support and cheer on Team Canada.

That theme also runs through many of their ads, which don’t just feature Team Canada athletes, but are finding ways to encourage Canadians to cheer them on from afar. Even brands like Air Canada, which is using the big audience of the Olympics to debut a non-Olympic campaign, is using its below-the-line sponsor activities on digital and social channels to show support for athletes.

Stefan Read, SVP of the strategic advisory and strategy practice lead at Jackman Reinvents, says putting the focus on Canadian Olympians, instead of the Games themselves, is probably the safest route when it comes to risk management. And that’s a route that would make sense even for non-pandemic Games, as allegations of corruption and potential labour violations seem to bubble up for the IOC in the lead up to each event.

Supporting amateur athletes, Read says, is also much more in line with the increased importance people are placing on supporting local and their communities, as opposed to directly supporting an organization like the Olympics, where people see “more spectacle and bigger stadiums and an organization that is mostly funded by the biggest companies in the world.”

But an athlete-focused approach is not without its brand risks, especially in 2021.

For example, after saying last year that it would not allow any “political gestures” during the Games, the IOC released revised guidelines earlier this month, though it still forbids political gestures during events, ceremonies and in the Olympic Village, limiting statements to before a competition starts or during their introduction. And those cannot “be targeted at a certain people, country or organization [and] cannot be disruptive.”

These guidelines were largely seen as responses to what has been happening in major sports and events like the Euro Cup, where athletes have increasingly delivered statements by doing things like kneeling during national anthems or sporting pro-Black Lives Matter messages.

That could be an issue advertisers need to contend with. Read pointed to data from Jackman’s ongoing Human Insights research, which has shown that, through the pandemic, 47% of consumers intend to hold organizations they interact with more accountable than they did before, while 30% said they are increasingly aware of social injustices.

“There’s a big disconnect between where consumers are at and what they’ll see at the Games,” he says. “Beyond that, consumers have a high radar for hypocrisy. So if you’re a brand that put out a pro-BLM message last summer, you’re going to have to think long and hard about what you do if an athlete you’ve been telling people to cheer on contravenes this policy. A lack of response is gonna get called out, especially if it seems to go against the things you’ve been saying you value over the last year.”

Kincaid says that the brand reputation issue goes beyond just one Olympic Games, and hits sponsorship of big events more broadly. Sponsorship is an investment, and like any investment, it includes taking on a risk, whether that’s an event being mismanaged or cancelled, attendance or audience numbers dropping or something happening that overshadows the event itself.

“Whether it’s the Olympics or the NHL or the CFL, you have control over certain things and no control over many things,” Kincaid says. “You look at the equity the property has that you wish to be associated with, and weigh it against the level of risk for these unplanned things. I do believe that, if at every major event there is something that upstages it, there’s a point where sponsors say, hey, I’m taking that money and using it on more personal, customized communications with my customers that I have more control over. With social media making people more connected and aware of these stories, I think that day will come.”