In a bid to help advertisers optimize the impact of their Olympics investments, NBC Sports is taking a new research initiative to market, designed to provide performance-enhancing insights into what makes a commercial resonate with viewers.
To supercharge their clients’ Tokyo Summer Games creative, NBC looked to the recent past, selecting 671 ads that aired during PyeongChang 2018 and Rio 2016 for use as a virtual archive of marketing science. As part of the new Olympics Ad Engine effort, NBC researchers applied machine learning and good ol’ fashioned human curation as the means to devise a more-or-less foolproof marketing formula.
Having analyzed the last two batches of Olympics ads, NBC says it can now advise its Tokyo 2021 advertisers on which creative elements are crucial to over-indexing on a quintet of very specific marketing objectives. These include: awareness, ad breakthrough, brand perception, brand engagement and search impact.
For example, based on past performance, an advertiser looking to juice up awareness would perhaps be best served by developing a spot with a certain comedic tone, perhaps one that features a well-liked celebrity. Such an ad needn’t be terribly innovative, as the combination of famous face and a chuckle usually tends to fire the neurons that also make the viewer more susceptible to taking note of things like brands and logos.
When a more programmatic objective is in mind, the advertising science suggests an entirely different approach. A brand that invests in the Olympics as a means toward maxing out its search impact is better served by cooking up a more dramatically inflected spot, one that includes an animal presence rather than a human star.
Using an Olympics buy as a means to tweak brand awareness calls for one of the oldest tricks in the book, a spot that plays up patriotic sentiments and features a celebrity. More often than not, that combination gives rise to a commercial starring a representative of Team USA, which also makes for a powerful conceptual alignment between the Games and a given brand. The 2018 Winter Olympics were awash in that approach; for example, Toyota aired a spot featuring US figure skater Ashley Wagner no fewer than 86 times over the course of the two-week event, while the hockey-affiliated Dunkin’ Donuts ran its Meghan Duggan ad 73 times. One of the most recognizable athletes, downhill skier Lindsey Vonn, popped up everywhere from a Bounty paper towels commercial to an in-house promo for the Games themselves.
Advertisers who go for the easy layup of Olympian testimonials will obviously want to pick a winner; as Reebok’s doomed “Dan & Dave” campaign proved in 1992, there’s nothing worse than going all-in on a rivalry when one of the principals fails to qualify for the Games. To that end, marketers could do worse than lining up a star like Allyson Felix, the most accomplished female track and field athlete in Olympics history, or America’s most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles, who seems to be tuning up for a massive Tokyo endorsement spree with her near-ubiquitous Uber Eats campaign.
With some 540 models in place, NBC doesn’t believe there’s any danger that a mechanized approach to perfecting the Olympics creative will lead to a homogenous viewing experience, even though sports fans will be confronted by dozens of ads featuring the same three basic elements. The Olympics Ad Engine is calibrated finely enough so that every other brand isn’t instructed to crank out an ad where a flag-draped cockapoo cracks wise with Jennifer Aniston over a frozen pizza.
As Dan Lovinger, executive VP of ad sales for NBC Sports Group, notes, an Olympics buy is already a sure thing, inasmuch as the exposure afforded by the Games generates significant lifts in brand awareness and search optimization. But given the scope of these marketing investments and the turmoil of the last 10 months, NBC is looking to provide its clients with an opportunity to road test their Tokyo ads well in advance of the torch-lighting ceremony. And creative can be tested at any stage of the development process, be it anywhere from the back-of-the-bar-napkin phase to storyboarding to a finished cut.
So while the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics averaged a whopping 26 million viewers and reached more than one-quarter of all people watching TV at the time, Lovinger realizes that the vast reach of the Games doesn’t make the creative decisions any easier. “The CMOs have to make tough decisions,” Lovinger said. “This is one of the biggest platforms imaginable through which to make your mark, and with this sort of scale, the opportunity for ridicule is significant.”
Lovinger said his team had planned to roll out the Olympics Ad Engine ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games, but naturally those efforts were scuttled last March, when organizers postponed the event in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The extra time allowed for an even more comprehensive modeling effort, and Lovinger said he anticipates that “a number of our existing partners will want to use this.” He went on to add that “five brands are already engaged [with the concept] based on preliminary conversations we’ve had” and that he expects a majority of Olympics advertisers will want to kick the tires on the OAE well before the Games open on July 23.
Just a few weeks before the Tokyo Games were officially called off, Lovinger said that his team had sold nearly 90 percent of its Olympic inventory, surpassing $1.25 billion in national ad sales. Naturally, once COVID-19 had put the kibosh on an international sports extravaganza, Lovinger had to work with clients to manage the crisis. “We realized that not every advertiser had the same objectives, so we had different options in play for our marketers,” Lovinger said. “Some moved their commitments along to 2021, others chose to reserve their place in line, and for some we said, ‘Let it all go and come back when you’re ready.’”
Lovinger would not comment on where NBC’s Olympics commitments now stand, saying only that he’s confident that the lion’s share of the dollars pegged to last summer’s thwarted Games will find its way back a year later. “Our sales team has worked hard to meet the unprecedented challenge created by the postponement of the Games,” he said. “Advertisers continue to recognize the reach and consumer engagement of the Olympics, and the extraordinary moment that will take place in Tokyo this summer when the world regathers on its greatest stage. We’re pleased with our current pace of sales and will provide more detailed information soon.”
An update on NBC’s sales efforts could come within the next two or three weeks. Lovinger said that the process of re-booking the Olympics was fundamentally similar to the initial sales dynamic, and that the sports TV marketplace remained quite vigorous, despite the ongoing ratings erosion associated with high-impact events.
“I’m not going to pretend that any of this has been easy,” Lovinger said. “And there were a number of advertisers who couldn’t make it work. But those who [are back] have responded in kind with a very real investment.”