The London Olympics have been going strong for just over a week now, and the world has already witnessed numerous inspiring and memorable athletic accomplishments.  It’s truly remarkable to see what Olympians are capable of, whether it’s on the track, in the pool, in the gym, even at a ping-pong table.  The world is watching, and brands are paying attention, too; they’re acutely aware of the popularity of the athletes and are quick to snap up the most marketable names to sponsorship and promotional deals.  The athletes themselves are generally receptive to working with brands because most of them maintain amateur status, meaning that often their only income derives from corporate sponsors.  It’s a match that works for both sides: a brand gets the opportunity to align with a world-class athlete and national hero, and the Olympian gets a nice paycheck (although the IOC is doing their best to protect their business interests with their draconian rules denying athletes the chance to promote unofficial Olympic sponsors during the event).

In a perfect world, the partnership between brand and athlete would result in a harmonious, strategic relationship that boosts the popularity of everyone involved.  Sometimes, it doesn’t work out this way, resulting in a brand experience that is confusing, and possibly detrimental. But before looking at some slightly misguided efforts, let’s take a look at some of the successful and lasting connections between Olympic athletes and brands.

The Good


The cereal’s famous orange box first donned an image of an Olympic athlete on it’s front in 1958 when it featured pole vault champion Bob Richards.  A number of famous Olympians have graced the front since then, all framed by the iconic tagline “Breakfast of Champions.”  The ongoing partnership between Wheaties and US Olympians has been so successful that the front of the box has ingrained itself into American consciousness as representing the pinnacle of athletic achievement, an area reserved for only the best.  It’s become the gold standard of what the relationship between a brand and athlete can be; it now stands for something much more than just selling cereal, transcending its original purpose to create its own narrative in the public’s perception.  It will be interesting to see what current U.S. Olympic champion(s) get the call from Wheaties first.

Bruce Jenner prior to Kardashian influence.

lewisCarl Lewis running into the heart (and stomach) of America’s youth.

Puma & Usain Bolt

Being the fastest human ever comes with certain perks, one of which is being incredibly marketable to a worldwide audience.  Puma wasted no time harnessing the popularity of Usain Bolt to help sell their products (in fact, the German company sponsors the entire Jamaican track team, giving them great access to the sprint champion).  Bolt is featured in all forms of media, from TV spots and viral web videos, to print media and billboards.  Despite competing in an event that most of the world pays attention to once every four years, he’s still one of the most recognizable Olympic athletes.  Puma’s sponsorship of Bolt has helped position the brand as high performance athletic gear that doesn’t take itself too seriously off the track by tapping into the quirkiness of Jamaican culture.  It’s been a great partnership thus far and expect to see a whole new set of Bolt ads if he wins gold in London.

The Bad

Subway & Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history and one of the most dominant athletes of all-time.  No one can take away what he’s accomplished in the pool.  Unfortunately, his successes have also brought about a level of overexposure that diminishes his impact for brands.  Every brand seemingly wants to partner with Phelps, and he seems to be unable to say “no thanks.”  Which means that consumers are inundated with Phelps’ image.

Strategically, the partnership between Subway and Phelps makes sense.  But the message and execution is wrong.  Color me skeptical but are audiences supposed to believe that a world-class athlete in training is eating Subway on a regular basis?  I’ll let The Onion express my uncertainty.  Also, with NBC featuring Phelps on a nightly basis and his commercials running around the clock on other channels, it’s a little bit of a Phelps overload.  He might be immensely popular, but we’re rapidly approaching the point of oversaturation.  Once that level is reached, the audience will stop paying attention.  No brand wants that.

The Confusing

Ortega & Shawn Johnson, Morgan & Paul Hamm

I’ll just let the video do the talking.

Can someone explain how this makes sense for the Ortega brand?  It’s an example of a hastily thought out sponsorship, void of any strategic thought, its only goal to try to leech some popularity from Johnson and the Hamm brothers.  The result is a funny commercial, but no lasting impact for the brand.

Who are some partnerships between brands and Olympic athletes that have been good, bad, or confusing?  Let us know in the comments!

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