Billions are spent by global brands on sports sponsorship. Olympic sponsors will have to learn the lessons from last year’s World Cup and make the most of social media to get value out of their sponsorship deals.

Olympic sponsors are under starter’s orders to begin ticket promotions for the 2012 Games. On 26 April the imposed ‘blackout’ on sponsors’ ticket promotions (with the exception of Thomas Cook) was lifted.

Billions are spent by global brands on sports sponsorship, and billions more on promoting those sponsorships through ad campaigns, exclusive rights deals, legacy initiatives and corporate events.

Around 5bn people worldwide are set to watch the Games in what is arguably the most high-profile sporting even in the world. The opportunity for a brand to get its message in front of this audience is phenomenal.

But Olympic sponsors have been warned to learn lessons from last year’s World Cup, and use their sponsorship wisely. In a survey by Echo Research just 48% of respondents identified Coca-Cola as a sponsor from a list of brands, and 40% McDonald’s.

This might not sound too bad, until you hear that 20% of respondents identified Nike as a World Cup sponsor. (It wasn’t.) Similar research by Lightspeed just before the World Cup showed that opinions of brand sponsors hadn’t shifted, indicating that brands were relying on visual associations at the event itself, rather than exploiting any association ahead of kick off.

So how did Nike create association with the World Cup without writing a sponsor cheque? And how do brands make sure that their sponsorship works for them without just throwing more money at it?

According to Nielsen research, Nike achieved more social media and online association with the World Cup than its biggest competitor and World Cup sponsor, Adidas. Love it or hate it, its ‘Write the Future’ ad (aired on TV, with teasers released on YouTube and finally, its full version on YouTube with a reported 17m views in total across the campaign) summed up the hopes and fears of football fans round the world.

It split media opinion, but got a huge amount of media coverage for its controversial vision of a post-World Cup Rooney living in a caravan park. A social media campaign focused on Facebook and Twitter followed, including a dedicated Facebook app where fans could write their World Cup headline, with the chance to have it beamed above Johannesburg.

Why did this work so well? Firstly because Nike did something more engaging than simply putting a brand on a shirt or billboard: it created a social campaign that really got fans involved with the World Cup (as part of its broader ‘Nike Football’ initiative).

Secondly, because there is an intrinsic link between Nike and the World Cup: Nike is, at its root, a sports brand. There is a real connection in the mind of the consumer between the brand and its campaign; fans don’t have to make the huge leap between the values of, say, a fast food brand and a sports team. They could get behind their sporting heroes.

We’ve yet to see what the main campaigns for the 2012 sponsors will look like, but for some it’s got off to a rocky start. Visa, which has already had its reputation hit after a technology glitch prevented some sales of Olympic tickets, has negotiated an exclusive rights deal with News International to promote its sponsorship.

However, it has already faced criticism that it hasn’t done more to date to associate itself in a positive way with what is arguably the world’s greatest sporting event.

Coca-Cola is focusing on legacy initiatives such as increased recycling facilities for London and brand-specific initiatives such as a healthy living campaign for Powerade. Panasonic is creating video diaries for Team GB athletes. (McDonalds is reported to be serving three million of the 14m meals at the Games, which rather undermines the Olympics legacy bid for a healthier nation, but that’s a whole other debate).
The lesson for all sponsors from Nike’s World Cup is that no matter how much money you pour into sponsorship initiatives, it’s the ones that capture the spirit of the sport, and have the closest association with the proposition and values of the brand, that have the greatest impact.