#Sochi2014: When sport & politics collide


As you may have read in Marketing today, we’ve been looking closely at the controversial 2014 Sochi Olympics. On the face of it, a high profile sporting event with wall-to-wall TV coverage and a flow of social media conversation to tap into would appear to be a perfect scenario for marketers.

However, whether it’s been for political reasons or social factors, many Sochi 2014 sponsors have been plagued with issues from day one, while others succeeded. So, who were the winners and losers on social media?

The global picture
Analysing global English language conversation between 7th and 18th of February, we found that Visa was the number one most talked about partner in association with the Winter Olympics, with 49,700 mentions, followed by McDonalds with 18,800 mentions and Procter & Gamble with 12,000 mentions.

Identifying the drivers of topic conversation around the three most discussed sponsors, highlights how Visa and Procter & Gamble were able to successfully leverage the Winter Games – and their social channels – to drive brand awareness.

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McDonald’s may have been second overall for mentions, but as shown by the conversation drivers, it struggled to present a convincing narrative that it should be involved as a sponsor. It began badly when its #cheerstosochi hashtag was hijacked prior to the Olympics, by those highlighting Russia’s anti-gay laws.

The brand arguably never recovered from this, and the disparity of the association between a fast food company and a sporting event plagued it even further. Unlike its rivals, it failed to convince a significant proportion of the public of its legitimacy to be involved in the conversation.

Although Procter & Gamble had the third highest mentions, it achieved the largest proportion of positive conversation, with 67%. The success of Procter & Gamble was largely built around its Thank You, Mom ad and a strategy to focus on the athletes, and in its case, the mothers of the athletes – a fitting area of conversation for a brand focused on home and personal care.

By foregoing the emphasis on its products, it was able to really drive home the emotional angle, while still appealing to its target audience. To date the ad has been seen by an  impressive 18.3m people.

Helping drive awareness was the brand’s effective use of social, publishing the ad on YouTube in January, much earlier than any of its rivals, and then utilising its assets to tweet about it.

Similarly, Visa’s activity on social, Twitter particularly, was key. Like Procter & Gamble, Visa chose not to push the brand itself and instead focus on the athletes and events, combined with an effective use of images and Vine, Visa was able to create content people naturally wanted to share, capturing popular mood and gaining endorsements from social media users.

Leveraging its Twitter channel like this helped Visa achieve more retweets than its rivals and become the most talked about Sponsor on social.  

The UK picture
However, in the UK, where Sochi 2014 became just as much about politics as a sporting event, the sponsor activity was far more constrained. The scene was set with the Games’ build up mainly focusing on criticism of Russia’s anti-gay laws.

For the official sponsors of Sochi 2014, who had spent millions to be partners of the Olympics, it brought about the dilemma of whether to even leverage their partnership in the UK – and if so, how? Most of the official partners took the tactical decision of not to be proactive.

Over the same time period between the 7th – 18th February, the result was that official sponsors were not talked about significantly on social platforms in the UK with regards to their Olympic sponsorship.

Coca Cola had the most mentions at just over 300, followed by Visa and McDonald’s. Perhaps this lack of mass conversation was viewed as the best-case scenario in what had become something of an elephant in the room for the brands.

However, the vacuum of sponsorship activity, coupled with a lack of proactivity addressing concerns prior – and during – the Winter Olympics arguably helped exacerbate an already sensitive situation concerning gay rights, enabling criticism to proliferate into negative headlines and, in some cases, even turned into a call to boycott products.

As a result, the major topic of conversation about key sponsors was criticism of their involvement in the Games.

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This ‘head in the sand’ strategy however, ignored an interest in the Games, which has led BBC2 to become the most watched channel for most of last Saturday. With today’s bronze medal, it’s been Team GB’s most successful Winter Olympics ever, with TV viewing figures showing that three million of us watched Jenny Jones snowboard to a bronze and over five million watched Lizzy Yarnold pick up her Gold medal in the women’s skeleton.

A sensitive but innovative social campaign that tapped into this interest and the real-time nature of the widespread BBC 2 coverage could perhaps have driven positivity and brand engagement, while reaching an audience that these brands might not necessarily always appeal to.