It turns out Katie Ledecky can make a splash without the Olympics. Swimming across a pool last month with a glass of chocolate milk balanced on her head, the five-time gold medalist quickly earned more than 7 million views across Twitter and TikTok to kick off the Milk Processor Education Program’s viral #GotMilkChallenge.
The stunt was Ledecky’s idea after MilkPEP reached out following the delay of the Tokyo Olympics, as brands scrambled to adjust their marketing plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “She was able to help them really break through when people were still trying to figure out how to talk to consumers,” said Ledecky’s agent, Dan Levy, who is VP of action sports and Olympics at Wasserman.
These days, Levy added, an athlete’s personal brand and online reputation is nearly as important as his or her competitive activity when it comes to landing marketing deals. Along the way, the line between so-called “influencer” and athlete has only further faded. “The platforms that athletes have built and the social followings they have… are super valuable, and brands realized that was one really effective way to get to consumers,” he said. “You’ve seen that trend start over the last two Olympic cycles, and it was more evident than ever throughout all of this.”
According to a U.S. Olympic Committee poll conducted after the 2010 Vancouver Games, three times as many respondents considered Olympic athletes to be positive role models for children compared to their counterparts in American pro sports. Olympic athletes were also considered sources of inspiration at nearly four times the rate of those in the NFL, NBA and MLB.
With other sports having now resumed, advertisers are beginning to turn their attention to next July’s Olympic return, said Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman president of brands and properties. Lindsey predicted that companies in tech—one of the few industries seeing growth through 2020—are likely to play an outsized role in Tokyo.
Meanwhile, travel and tourism companies present the biggest question mark. “We could see them really pivoting around the Olympics,” Lindsey said, if global travel has picked up by then. Otherwise, those brands could largely sit out 2021. If they do, they won’t have to wait long for another chance at an Olympic moment—just 180 days separate the Aug. 8, 2021 closing of the Tokyo Games from the Feb. 4, 2022 opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The upcoming back-to-back setup represents a unique opportunity in modern sports marketing that hasn’t been seen since the International Olympic Committee began alternating the summer and winter editions every two years in 1992.
If brands stretch their Olympic campaigns across the six-month period, other international events occurring during that span could find it hard to compete for advertisers’ attention. And prolonging the spotlight on Olympic athletes—whose marketing opportunities are traditionally bound to their two-weeks-every-four-years competitive windows—will likely further strengthen and sustain their personal branding power as well.