How Olympic advertisers are regrouping for 2021 summer games in Tokyo

Sports

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Olympic commercials and social media campaigns are a lot like the Super Bowl, but on a much grander scale. A wave of anticipation and excitement is created leading up to the big event, and fans watch closely during the competitions for special commercials that can evoke emotion, a sense of determination and perseverance or international comradery.

Under the current climate of a worldwide pandemic and racial unrest, we can expect to see Olympians taking on these heavy hitting topics as well — which means a total shift by sponsors and advertisers who had a different plan of attack leading into the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.

A lot has changed since the postponement.

Visa, a long-time Olympic partner, was one of many companies that had huge expectations riding on Tokyo 2020. Visa’s Chief Brand and Innovation Marketing Officer Chris Curtin said the company was poised with a plan to further Japan’s efforts to move toward more digital payments.

“We had 15,000 card holders we were going to bring to Japan for the Olympics this summer, and we were going to have 200 executives coming in four waves,” Curtin said. “And we were going to expose them to the future of payments and the future of technology through the Olympics.”

The strategy, two years in the making, included big plans for the Olympic Village and pavilions. Curtin said his team spent the last few months determining what parts they can keep, and which parts will need to be refreshed and made specific to 2021.

Visa was in the late planning stages when the Olympic postponement was announced in March, but Curtin said the company made it clear to the International Olympic Committee privately that pushing the games back was a good idea instead of other options on the table such as modifying it or canceling altogether.

“We wanted the Olympics to be the Olympics and we didn’t want a diluted version, not just for fans but also for the athletes,” Curtin said. “These athletes train their entire life in some instances for this moment, and it’s just too important to them and to us to make sure that we get it right.”

He is hoping the 2021 Olympics become a defining moment for celebration following the pandemic, and coincide with the economy bouncing back.

Team Visa 2020 Olympians 101320
Over 30 Olympic and Paralympic athletes convene at Visa headquarters for Team Visa Summit in preparation for Tokyo 2020 on Nov. 13, 2019 in San Francisco. (Don Feria/AP Images for Visa)

Visa was one of the first companies to extend sponsorships with roughly 100 Olympic hopefuls from a range of countries and sports, which it calls Team Visa.

“We just felt like, assuming that those athletes wanted to compete again in 2021 and go to the games, that we were going to stand behind them,” said Curtin. “There was so much uncertainty in the world, it was totally unfair to them, much like it is to everyone, but particularly to them that we wanted to take one concern off their plate and make sure that they knew the Visa was standing behind them.”

Some of the athletes helped the company quickly rework an existing campaign with its creative agency to speak to what was happening in the new COVID-19 world. In the original ads, Olympians would be doing a remarkable athletic feat coined with the phrase: This is not easy. Then that same athlete would be seen doing something very easy like making a hands-free payment from their phone or watch.

For example, video would play of 4-time Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles doing a remarkable gymnastics move, and then she would use a phone or a contactless credit card to make a payment.

Team Visa Olympians 101320
Team Visa US Olympic and Paralympic athletes, (L-R) Oksana Masters, Noah Lyles, Megan Rapinoe, Katie Ledecky and Kate Courtney convene at Team Visa Summit on Nov. 13, 2019 in San Francisco. (Don Feria/AP Images for Visa)

When the postponement occurred, Visa reached out to athletes, and not only offered their commitment to stand behind them, but also asked if they would follow that same idea and shoot some content at home on their own doing some form of training that represented the theme of “this isn’t easy,” and then get video of themselves doing something COVID-related that is easy like washing their hands or social distancing.

“Katie Ledecky did one, Sky Brown did one, I mean, it just puts such a smile on the faces of all the Visa employees,” said Curtin.

He said the campaign was a huge hit, and went viral online.

But, the work is far from over. While advertisers are busy rethinking campaigns for the summer Olympics, they’re planning for the 2022 Winter Olympics and coming up with ideas for the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

“It’s a really healthy distraction and people love it,” Curtin said of the ads. “And you know, people want to work on something that’s going to make a difference and people want to work on something that’s going to make us all be a little bit better and leave humanity a little better than we found it.”

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