Today: Last Update:

  • Tuesday Talk -- Coca-Cola Marks 125 Years, 83 as Olympic Sponsor


    Coca-Cola is going retro with its 125th anniversary advertising.
    The Tuesday Talk Is Presented by
    Helios Partners

    (ATR) On the eve of its 125th anniversary, Coca-Cola traces the past, present and future of the Olympic Movement's longest-running sponsorship.

    Thierry Borra, director of Olympic Games Management for the Atlanta beverage giant, spoke with Around the Rings ahead of the May 8 celebration about Coke's plans for London 2012, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 as well as why he doesn't care which city wins hosting rights to 2018.

    Around the Rings: Why do you think the Olympics and FIFA World Cup sponsorships help the longevity and strength of the brand? Why are they so important to a company like Coca-Cola?

    Thierry Borra: If you look back at how our business has developed, it goes back to the beginning of the previous century when our chairman Robert Woodruff came up with a sensibility that Coke was a product that has a truly international appeal.

    He saw what was going on with the Olympics and said that may be a good opportunity for us to be part of that journey, to be part of that world-class competition. That’s how we started our partnership with the Olympic Movement. It was 1928 at the Amsterdam Games.
    Coca-Cola first arrived at the Olympic Games via this ship, seen docking in Amsterdam with about a dozen cases aboard. (Coca-Cola)

    The first thing he did, he brought about a dozen cases to put aboard the U.S. Olympic Team’s ship across the Atlantic and started by having Coke be served around kiosks at the Games.

    It’s interesting to look at the evolution moving forward and what role every Games has played in our history.

    If you look at London 1948, it was just after World War II. There were a lot things destroyed in Great Britain, and our production capability had been damaged, so we really leveraged the Games to rebuild infrastructure. We shipped trucks and cases of product all over from Europe, including from Scotland, from northern Great Britain and so on.

    If you move forward to Helsinki in 1952, we didn’t have a local bottler at the time so the Games allowed us to build infrastructure and to build capability.

    More recently, my first Olympic involvement was in 1992 in Albertville, and I remember perfectly how the Games were an incredibly powerful tool to start to build a relationship in the whole Savoie area. We had our salespeople visiting every point of sales bringing glasses, memorabilia and umbrellas to allow to us to build two things: 1) the awareness of the brand and 2) the brand’s association to the Games.

    Nowadays, we still have salespeople going to visit the point of sales and keeping that relationship alive. If you go around Albertville today, there are still souvenirs left over from the Coke association. I can tell you that this relationship was incredible. That’s true in Albertville. That’s true in many Olympic cities.

    I think one of the most important was the Beijing Games, where for us it’s a growing market. We’re building our capabilities. The number of consumers is growing day after day, so we have to keep up with this.

    The Games, like the FIFA World Cup, are both fantastic opportunities to build capability, build infrastructure, increase our production facilities and so on.

    ATR: Do you think that you would have a brand with the strength of Coca-Cola today without sponsorship opportunities like the Olympics or like the FIFA World Cup?

    TB: It’s always challenging to say yes or no to if we wouldn’t have done this. I’m convinced and I think I’m not the only one here.
    Coca-Cola sponsored the 86-country, 225-day trophy tour leading up to last summer's World Cup staged throughout South Africa. Coke's association with FIFA dates back to 1974. (Getty Images)

    I think the company truly believes in these associations. We have a lot of things in common. We share a lot of the same values, and we really believe the Games have played a fantastic role in our development.

    With the FIFA World Cup, you’ve seen what we’ve been able to do in South Africa with our marketing campaign.

    We are trying to get inspired to build a bigger plant for London. We have really huge ambition with London and how we can connect our brands with our consumers and make these London Games a big milestone in our marketing campaign.

    ATR: In this case, you already have a local bottler by now, right?

    TB: We do. We have a very strong local bottler, a very efficient and very good one.

    ATR: So it’s different this time, certainly from 1948 when you mentioned the need to rebuild your infrastructure. This time, you have a very sophisticated infrastructure in place and product in place and all of that. What kind of a different marketing objective do you have for London?

    TB: Every Games is different, so the London 1948 Games were far different from these days, but still the opportunity is huge. Of course, the capacity of the bottler is first-class and we have great salespeople and a first-class plant and factory, but we’re still working on a sustainability agenda, for example, addressing how we can be more efficient in terms of delivering – using hybrid trucks, for example – or looking at our packaging and how we can be more efficient in terms of materials that we use.

    For example, we just launched the plant bottle in Vancouver. We’re going to have them in Great Britain. Coke, Coke Zero and Diet Coke will use a plant bottle, and that’s going to be launched before the summer for sure in Great Britain.
    Coca-Cola launched its patented PlantBottle in Vancouver. (Getty Images)

    From the marketing point of view, there’s a fantastic opportunity to create relevance on how we can be part of that big Olympic celebration and be connected to the team. The youth is very important to our marketing campaign. Our intention is really to make the angle we’re taking relevant to the teens of the world, and I think we have a really exciting campaign that is still in progress but close to being final. I have to say I think it’s a kind of shift in the way we’re approaching the Games. We’re all very excited about the opportunity we have here with London, which is really for me I think a big milestone in how we approach our marketing with the Olympics.

    ATR: You’re going to sponsor the torch relay in London, and that’s become one of the signature events of the Games that Coca-Cola seems to be associated with. Why that event? What’s so great about the torch relay for your brand?

    TB: For us, I about bringing the Games to a broader population. It’s a way to reach the whole country and bring them part of that Olympic celebration. I think it’s a unique opportunity, and what we liken that to is we have that direct connection, that really personal connection when you can create an emotion.

    Our role is to bring happiness, and we believe the torch relay is a great platform to share happiness with the people from the whole country and, in this case, London.

    ATR: Does the location of a given Olympics or a given FIFA World Cup help shape the way Coke brands itself for that event?

    TB: It’s a very challenging balance that you need to find because what we are trying to create are global campaigns that are relevant in every market. Just by saying that, it’s already a headache.

    When we’re developing, for example, the London platform, we’re going to work with different markets around the world in cooperation, making sure what we are developing is relevant in China, is relevant in Brazil and is relevant in the U.S. while we still keep a good flavor of what is specific to London and what is specific to the U.K.
    An exhibit at the World of Coke in Atlanta showcases the company's Olympic past, including these torches. (ATR)

    What you saw in Beijing was probably the first test of a true global campaign around the Olympics. I’m convinced that what you will see in London will be even bigger in terms of number of markets activating.

    ATR: And when did you say we’ll be seeing elements of this London campaign? How soon will that become apparent?

    TB: June 1, in fact, we’re going to announce our torchbearer nomination campaign, so you’re going to have on the market packaging bearing the new look of the Games, you’re going to have some advertising and the PR campaign will start.

    We can really say that June will be the start of the Olympic campaign and what you will see in the Great Britain market.

    ATR: Where are you in your planning for the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014? You’re concentrating on London right now, but at the same time, are you planning for Sochi, a place where at least by my observations Pepsi, for example, has a much stronger branding presence today?

    TB: We have several Games to manage, and we have to manage these Games at the same time.

    London is getting more important to us because we are closer and closer to the beginning, but in terms of planning, Sochi is more important because that’s how we build a team, how we plan our legacy and how we are going to create that step change in Russia. Right now, as well, we don’t forget Rio.
    Coca-Cola would seem to face a Pepsi challenge in Sochi. (ATR)

    I think we have a fantastic opportunity with Sochi because you’re right that some of Russia has been dominated by Pepsi, so we have a great opportunity in front of us and we are very excited about this.

    ATR: And then Rio? First, you have the 2014 World Cup to deal with.

    TB: Absolutely, and that’s a new model for us that we need to think about.

    We are having some discussions internally on how we should approach these two global events in the same country in two years of difference, and we need to be smart to be efficient in the way we’re going to manage our internal resources to avoid duplication but not lose relevance.

    It’s a tricky challenge because you know for a business unit, it’s a big burden to take over a global event like that, so when you have two, you can see it as a great opportunity, which it is, but it’s also something we need to manage carefully.

    ATR: What difference does it make to Coca-Cola which city is chosen for the Olympic Games or which countries get chosen to host the FIFA World Cup? We’re in the middle of the 2018 contest. Do you ever care?

    TB: No. As I said earlier, we are doing business in 206 countries, so whether it goes in South Korea, France or Germany they are all big business for us, and if they’re not big business, they’re a growing business.

    It’s part of being a long-term partner. We are supporting the Games or the FIFA World Cup wherever they are going.

    Interview conducted by Ed Hula and Matthew Grayson.

    For general comments or questions, click here.

    Your best source of news about the Olympics is, for subscribers only.