The London Olympics officially open Friday, but just like the athletes that will parade through the opening ceremonies, the most aggressive and savviest advertisers began staring down their competition far in advance of this moment. In the ad world, the Games began months ago.
In a sign of a broader trend, Procter & Gamble has been targeting pre-Olympic advertising as intensely as it would ads during the Games. P&G has gone hard on Web advertising, releasing ads online before they hit TV.
"We intentionally chose to launch a digital-first campaign," said David Grisim, associate marketing director at P&G Canada. "By launching digitally first, we found that we got a much higher level of engagement than we would in a traditional campaign."
Olympic sponsors have collectively spent millions to be associated with the Games, and cannot afford to rely on traditional TV advertising to make good on that investment. P&G needed to encourage people to watch and share the ads so that by the time they are seen on television, they are well-known. Its campaign focuses on the mothers behind the athletes, and was promoted heavily on social media to create an early connection, especially with moms, who are a target market for many of its products. (A video featuring Canadian triathlete Paula Findlay and her mother, part of a series of "Raising an Olympian" online videos, is a good example of the maternal tearjerker theme.)
The results have been better than expected: In Canada, its "Best Job" commercial reached 150,000 views on YouTube in its first week after launching in April. Since then, 1.4 million Canadians have seen it. An even more important metric for P&G is that an average of one in three viewers shared the video with others.
"We've never seen numbers like that," Mr. Grisim said.
This digital sharing is not simply a feel-good tactic: It is also crucial for all Olympic advertisers struggling to ensure millions in sponsorship dollars are not squandered. London is the first in a five-game deal by Procter & Gamble to be a global partner – the most expensive tier of Olympics sponsorship. But that spend does not guarantee a spot under the Olympic halo.
With competitors always looking to buy ad space, undertake ambush marketing campaigns, or otherwise unofficially associate themselves with the Games, digital is a huge part of making consumers actually notice an official sponsorship. P&G has increased the portion of its marketing budget devoted to digital since signing its Olympic agreement. It is not alone.
Quebec-based retailer Rona Inc., a national sponsorship partner, spent only 2 per cent of its marketing budget on digital during the Vancouver Games. This time, 20 per cent of its money is being spent there.
"It was challenging for us to make Canadians feel as excited about a Games that was thousands of kilometres away," said Rona's executive vice-president of marketing, Karim Salabi, adding that the five- to eight-hour time difference from London is also a factor. With no certainty that Canadians will tune in, Rona would miss a large part of its audience if it invested as heavily in TV (and lightly in digital) as it did for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
According to Canada's Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium, which owns the broadcast rights, 23 per cent of its advertisers' campaigns during the 2010 Games had a digital component; for London, it is 33 per cent.
"People are looking for things that work together, on mobile, the Web, the TV…," said Dan Cimoroni, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for the consortium. The largest advertisers are dedicating between 16 per cent and 28 per cent of their ad budgets to digital, he said.
P&G's activity is a model for how Rona plans to intensify both its television and digital presence, Mr. Salabi said. Rona's just-launched TV commercial, featuring a relay race with a screwdriver in place of a baton, plays on the same theme it has been seeding in its pre-Games digital campaign. The "Rona Running Relay" asked Canadians to log the kilometres they run in real life, to contribute to a virtual relay across the country in support of Canadian athletes. The challenge was designed to make people share it with friends online – with Rona's brand along for the social ride. With 1,200 runners contributing, the retailer already surpassed its goal; it is now asking Canadians to extend the relay around the world – logging roughly 40,000 kilometres.
Amid all this digital activity is a strange exception: Search advertising is lagging in Canada, and no one knows why exactly.
The advance purchase of search terms on Google by U.S. companies has been aggressive, as advertisers try to lock down words that people will search during the London Games. Activity is spiking – searches of "Olympics" in Canada increased 400 per cent in the past 90 days, "London 2012" is up 55 per cent in the past week, and searches started increasing earlier than for previous Games, according to Google – but advertisers have not followed those eyeballs in Canada.
A search for "Olympics gear" this week on Google in the U.S. revealed scores of ads from NBC, Team USA, Speedo, and Forever 21, among others. The same search from a computer in Canada resulted in an empty space on the right-hand side of the Google screen where so many ads usually appear. It revealed only one ad, for U.S. broadcaster NBC's Olympic store.
It's a mystery even Google hasn't figured out. "This is something where we've seen Canada lag behind," said Google Canada spokesperson Andrew Swartz.
He said a similar lag has existed during other events such as the Euro Cup, despite the spike in search activity whenever big events roll around. "Advertisers aren't taking advantage here."
P&G has foregone buying generalized Olympic keywords in favour of bidding on targeted terms related to its videos, including the names of athletes it sponsors, such as Alexandre Despatie.
But Canadian advertisers may be missing out on the online search arena, one of the most important platforms people go to for their Olympic updates. A search for "Summer games" in the U.S. this week filled the results screen with ads. In Canada, again, just one ad appeared, for Rona.
Rona's Mr. Salabi said he is aware of the gap between search advertising in the U.S. and Canada. While he would not divulge which terms he has bid on, for fear his competitors will pounce, he said the company has made a heavy investment in search. It has seen a 60-per-cent increase in searches related to the Rona brand in the two and a half months leading up to the Games.
"I have absolutely no doubt that Canadians will catch up, and a lot of the search-engine marketing investments that U.S. companies have done will have to happen here," Mr. Salabi said. "I want to make sure that Rona is way ahead of the curve."