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A Brand Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

by Alf Nucifora

In this consumption-driven society, great celebratory events have a way of focusing attention on the brands that support them. The recently completed Olympics is a case in point. Billions of dollars were spent by both media and advertisers in claiming bragging rights, which is nothing more than code language for what we, in marketing circles, term "elevating the brand."

The Sydney Olympics saw its share of marketing winners and losers, in itself not surprising. What does surprise is that these grand marketing events incur an unconscionable degree of waste, normally on the part of major marketers who should know better by now.

Let's Start with NBC
We know that the ratings were down, not an astonishing revelation given the suspense-destroying fifteen-hour time delay. That could not be helped. The "evening highlight" broadcasts were lacking in excitement, but that shortcoming was balanced by professional editing and smooth anchoring by uber-emcee Bob Costas.

Where they failed was in their inability to view the Olympics through a more contemporary set of eyes. What kept us glued to the event in previous decades is no longer compelling. With the demise of Communism, the traditional blood-and-guts, nationalistic rivalries are gone. Can we really get turned-on by two fat guys huffing and puffing, clinching and groaning for nine minutes of unrivaled boredom? Add to that, the oppressiveness of poorly trained, recently recruited, ex-athletic heroes cum sportscasters, with their eager-to-impress, over-the-top, jingoistic tone. And, let's not forget the same overproduced schmaltzy vignettes with their forced connection to rhyme and reason.

Give Juan Antonio Samaranch his due; he's turned the Olympics into a modern marketing marvel, an athletic juggernaut that generates billions in revenue and considerable hype every two years. Samaranch and the IOC, in spite of their frailties, have built the largest spectator event in world history. Unfortunately, NBC still covers it like a Miss America Pageant.

Sydney Wins Big
Where Atlanta wilted, Sydney bloomed. Americans woke to Matt and Katie extolling the virtues of the land and its people. Every visual image carried the awesome Opera House and coathanger Bridge in the background. The city and its harbor glistened; the opening and closing ceremonies were knockouts; the facilities displayed an architecture that was awe-inspiring and ergonomics that functioned well. The sports-crazed Aussies, playing true-to-form, were boisterous, friendly, egalitarian, and full of life itself. Sydney was always a world class city but nobody knew. Now the whole world knows. Henceforth, Sydney will take its place as one of the great brands in international tourism. Call it a very successful brand introduction.

Few Medals For Advertisers
If one supposes that marketers will want to feature their best advertising product at all times, particularly for the world's most watched event, why then is Olympic advertising so mediocre and off-strategy? Who controls the process inside the ad agencies that lets such poorly conceived pablum get on air? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

Let's quickly assess some of the main players.

Five stars to Mercedes-Benz for its highly evocative and extremely charming work for the new C Class lineup. That campaign will sell a lot of cars. IBM, UPS and Visa did a respectable job reinforcing both the position and ubiquity of their brands. Good, solid consistent brand support, although that "I Love Don" spot from Visa was beginning to wear on my nerves in the end. Hasn't anybody at Visa heard about commercial wear out? There was an exceptionally relevant and a highly intelligent viewpoint from Sun America. I was one of those impressionable fools who bought a $60,000 car that could now be worth $300,000 if I had invested the money in a Sun America retirement account. They got my attention. And there was an imaginative use of animation from AT&T in communicating the speed and flexibility of its new broadband service. I'll be calling them when its time to hook up my office.

On the other side of the fence, we saw the same barrage of vapid, heart-tugging nonsense from advertisers such as Home Depot who still live in time-warp. Their advertising reflected a style that was executed much more effectively by Budweiser and McDonald's in the '80's. I still don't understand what the Bank America campaign ("Why not") was all about or how it related to the jaded consumer who wants nothing more than responsiveness, good customer service, and decent financial return from a financial services provider. I grew tired of that interminable Sprint PCS spot about the guy being caught in the garage by his father…presumably a feeble attempt to equate cellular phone service with furtive adolescent vices.

But the real criticism we must reserve for Coca Cola and, to a lesser extent, Nike ("Chain Saw") and John Hancock ("Divorced Couple") all of whom ran ads that put consumer teeth on edge and, in some cases, had to be pulled within the week. How could these otherwise respected brands and acknowledged leaders in their marketplace allow the release of advertising that is so discordant and antithetical to the very nature of the brand. In the case of Coca Cola, little of its advertising made sense. Generational differences aside, can anyone please explain the significance of that self-absorbed, dancing doofus and the seemingly drugged-up, drunked-out group for whom he was performing. Worse still, were the mean, hateful vignettes featuring grandma, returning soldier and Japanese exchange student all of whom respond with venom and spite to the news that there's no Coca Cola at hand. It was ill-conceived, destructive advertising to begin with, made even more so when one considers that Coca Cola made its bones and established its imagery based on representing an America that we all loved and cherished, one built on respect for family, patriotism, and people of other lands. Shame on Coca Cola. Shame on its marketing experts. Shame on its advertising agency. And shame on its management for allowing the brand to be so degraded before a worldwide audience.

In medieval times kings had food tasters to insure that the body royal was never poisoned. Perhaps the same principle should be applied to advertising. How about a class of ad tasters to test the product before it hits the airways and poisons the brand.

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