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To clean up the Olympic brand, the IOC must restore trust

Make that brand sparkle again. Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

It’s crunch time for the Olympic Games, and the heat is on in Rio. The games are facing some major challenges – but one in particular is so serious that it threatens the Olympics’ very existence.

Ongoing doping scandals have left the Olympic brand in tatters; especially the latest saga involving Russian athletes, which saw the International Olympic Committee (IOC) come under fire for passing the buck to other international sporting federations. If the organisation fails to deliver on its promise of a fair competition, then spectators, governments and other international bodies will lose their trust in the Olympic Games – and this time it could prove terminal.

We live in a branded world, where everything from food and drink to cars and clothes carry visible names and logos. Not everyone is happy with branding, yet for many of us it is supposed to make life easier. Brands create familiarity, enabling us to consume with confidence and certainty.

This doesn’t happen by accident though. Brands are actively managed and positioned in a way that helps us to understand who they are and what they do. This positioning is, in turn, associated with a “brand proposition” (which is essentially a promise). This promise emphasises the benefits for a consumer of engaging with a brand, and – when fulfilled – works to establish a brand’s trustworthiness.

A big promise

The most obvious manifestation of the Olympic brand is the five rings: it is an instantly recognisable symbol, and the IOC is fiercely protective of it. Sponsors such as Coca Cola, McDonalds and Samsung pay millions of dollars for the right to be associated with the Olympics, and to use the name and logo in their marketing activities.

As for the Olympics’ brand proposition: it is the biggest sporting event in the world, contested by the best athletes around, the pinnacle of sport and a representation of everything that is supposed to be good about it. The Olympic Charter claims that the games are committed to demonstrating “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”.

The charter also stresses that the IOC and the games bring together “individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism”, and that “belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter”. These are hefty promises for any brand to fulfil, and there are clearly some athletes and certain nations who haven’t bought into them.

Nothing suss. Kay Nietfeld/EPA

As a result, the IOC finds itself struggling to make good on its brand proposition. With every failed drugs test, the Olympic brand sinks further into the mire. What’s more, whether or not we trust a brand depends on repetition over time. The current scandal involving Russian athletes is just the tip of a very large iceberg, which extends back through Ben Johnson’s discredited win in 1988, and beyond.

So, past experiences reinforce the perception that the Olympic brand and its constituent parts (athletes, federations, countries and so forth) simply aren’t trustworthy. Research into branding indicates that trust takes a long time to build, is easy to damage, and can be very costly and time consuming to repair.

The IOC and its drugs testers will no doubt be hyper vigilant in Brazil, and one hopes this will continue to be the case during future games. But a “clean” games in Rio won’t be enough to rebuild brand trust. If the IOC wants to re-assert its trustworthiness, then it needs to demonstrate more confidence than it has done in its recent handling of the Russian drugs scandal.

Risky business

Whatever happens during Rio 2016, the breakdown in brand trust will continue to have a corrosive effect on the IOC’s credibility – particularly with sponsors. Earlier this year, we saw Adidas withdraw from one of its athletics sponsorships amid concerns about the impact doping might have on the company. Sponsor withdrawal is the last thing the Olympics needs, as its operating model relies heavily on commercial income.

Recent reports suggest that trust among sports fans in general has also started to deteriorate, which is also bad for business. Declining fan interest in the Olympics could lead to a fall in ticket sales, and therefore in revenues. In the same way, if consumers become less interested in the games, television and advertising revenue is likely to suffer, as people switch off from the event.

All of this shows that there is a business case for getting on top of doping. At a time when potential host cities are already questioning the economic and commercial value of bidding to stage the Olympics, the last thing the IOC needs is for trust problems with its cash cow brand to inflict serious financial damage upon it.

Effective testing is one thing, and a clean Rio 2016 is another – but implementing a strategy to restore brand trust still more important. Even if the IOC takes effective remedial action, the Olympics faces a long, hard battle to deliver what its brand proposition has always promised us. Failure to do so could consign the Olympic Games – and its highly coveted brand – to history.

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