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Inside brands like Powerade, Reese’s and Old El Paso’s Olympic and Paralympic influencer play

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The Olympic Games aren’t due to start until the final week of July, but brands hoping to bask in the glow of the Olympic torch have already commenced campaign efforts. And as the Paris Games edge closer, partnerships with competing athletes are set to be an increasingly vital part of the brand arsenal.

Despite strict regulations around advertising and brand partnerships, marketers and specialist agencies have been working to carefully select rosters of Olympians in the hope of piggybacking their rare organic reach in the run-up to, and during, the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Samsung, for example, began sponsoring the governing body for skateboarding in the U.K. (imaginatively titled Skateboarding UK) last September. The brand hopes to capitalize on both the novelty of the sport, only a recent addition to the Olympic Games, and the profile of skateboarder Sky Brown.

Powerade is working with dozens of athletes across 30 different markets, including Chilean para-swimmer Alberto Abarza, French cyclist Mathilde Gros and U.S. champion gymnast Simone Biles. The roster is by far the largest set of athletes the sports drink brand has involved in an Olympics campaign, according to Matrona Filippou, president global category of tea, coffee, sports and hydration at The Coca-Cola Company.

“This is the first time we’ve involved athletes like this,” she said. The campaign includes a traditional TV spot starring Biles, it’s also set to leverage those athletes’ own social channels; Abarza and Gros each have established Instagram presences, while Biles also brings a sizable TikTok following. Influencer activity involving those athletes is set to increase in frequency as the games draw closer, said Filippou.

Joe Weston, head of sport at influencer and social agency We Are Social, told Digiday that “athletes benefit from an organic reach brand channels can’t have,” and that advertisers were likely to gain a larger reach by putting budget towards boosting posts made by their athlete partners than buying paid social inventory starring those same stars. By putting paid spend “behind the athlete’s channel and not your brand channel, you’re putting petrol on the fire,” he said.

Choosing the right athletes, though, is key to realizing that idea. For some advertisers, selection is a pretty straightforward matter of matching key markets against crowd-favorite events and athletes that have already built a presence on social platforms.

We Are Social client Adidas is working with American track and field athlete Noah Lyles, a partnership that Weston said was in a “sweet spot” combining public awareness, creative potential and media placement. 

“He is someone right at the elite of their sport, who has a very good chance of breaking a world record [and] he’s also hugely charismatic and social native,” said Weston.

Other brands are using a different rationale. Filippou said that Powerade picked athletes who had experienced a comeback moment during their careers, to better fit its “Pause is power” positioning (the brand is also promoting a limited availability “gold” version of Powerade, which is mango-flavored). Chief among them is Biles, who took a widely publicized break from competition following the Tokyo Olympics.

“Having her as our hero ambassador is critical because she’s so authentic, and she has such a great comeback story,” said Filippou. 

Reese’s, by contrast, picked out two high profile Olympic and Paralympic athletes — Alex Morgan and Jessica Long — and pitted them against newcomers Sophia Smith and Haven Shepherd, to support a campaign promoting Reese’s Medals, a limited-time product available only for the duration of the Olympics.

Marketers at Old El Paso, meanwhile, hope to play up an association between families and teams. Its agency M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment is working with four U.K. Olympians (swimmer Tom Dean, cyclist Bethany Shriever, diver Jack Laugher and weightlifter Emily Campbell), featuring each in above-the-line work as well as producing content that shows their family lives and training regimes.

“Not everyone is an elite athlete, but everyone has a home team that they will share a meal with,” said Charlie Smith, business director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.

Ryan Riess, vice-president of brand strategy and creative development at Reese’s owner Hershey, told Digiday the brand is kicking off that promotional work with TV spots featuring actor Will Arnett, but will push its ambassadors to the front as the Olympic Games approach. “As you get closer to the Olympics, you really want to be hearing about the athletes,” he said. The quartet have already begun posting on their Instagram channels in support of the campaign, while Shepherd was drafted in for a special appearance at Hershey’s World in Time Square, for an event that launched the Medals product.

Rules and regulations

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) still maintains strict rules on advertising. Under Rule 40, last updated in 2023, athletes aren’t allowed to issue brand endorsements or imply that a product enhanced their performance during the Olympic Games. Even “thank you” messages directed at brand partners are limited to one-per-advertiser. So, between the IOC’s rules and time spent training for their events (the reason they’re there, after all), marketers working with athletes will be need to tread carefully.

Weston said: “This is the pinnacle of their careers and for some of them it’ll be the only Olympic Games they ever do. The idea of doing brand work close to that time is tough. You have to be really delicate with what your athletes are comfortable with and not comfortable with.”

The four U.S. athletes working with Reese’s, have been allowed to dictate the frequency and timing of their posts so that the campaign doesn’t interfere with their training, a Hershey spokesperson confirmed by email. (Filippou, Weston and Smith declined to share precisely how many posts athletes would make on behalf of brand partners during their respective campaigns, or which platforms were being prioritized.)

That doesn’t mean we won’t see athletes blurring the line between Olympic participant and influencer. Weston noted that the Olympic Games and the luxury Olympic Village can act as a kind of training ground for sports personalities.

Marketers should keep an eye on competing athletes’ social platforms in July and August, he said, because they could become major sports personalities after this year’s Games are done. Fresh names will likely emerge from the Olympic Games, while others can their core followings into crowds; Lyles has 99,000 TikTok followers now, but could end the summer with a much larger platform. “For us, the Olympic Village becomes a content farm,” he added.

Powerade hopes to extend its campaign into the Village itself. In partnership with the IOC, it’s built an annex to the grounds offering athletes a quiet space away from training or their other media duties.

The idea is to “provide an environment for the athletes to come in and do some mental or physical recovery,” said Filippou. If they decide to feature that environment on TikTok or Reels, that’s just fine for The Coca-Cola Company.

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