The scene opens on a grey sky, a silhouette of evergreens, and of course, falling snow. There has to be snow.
That’s because the Canadian Olympic Committee is attempting to marry its brand to the season at the heart of Canada’s identity: winter.
The COC will launch a new ad campaign for the Sochi Games on Tuesday with the slogan “We are Winter.” (“Nous sommes l’hiver.”) It begins Tuesday with print and online advertising and moves to television on New Year’s Day, with an anthemic commercial during the broadcast of the NHL’s Winter Classic. It will also involve preshow ads in Cineplex movie theatres, plus billboards, transit ads and spots on social media, including Twitter, with which the Olympic committee is announcing a partnership.
The We are Winter campaign, 16 months in the making, adds up to what the COC calls the “largest brand undertaking in its history.” Beyond promoting the athletes who will carry the Maple Leaf into the 22nd Winter Olympics, it has a serious business purpose: to give the COC more prominence, and in turn, to bring value to the companies that have sponsored the organization and the Canadian team.
The launch comes at a challenging time. This week, excitement in anticipation of the Sochi Games has been overshadowed by deadly suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd that claimed more than 30 lives.
The bombings were a reminder of political tensions in the North Caucasus region, and and of questions surrounding the security precautions being taken at the Olympics.
“Our thoughts are first and foremost with the families and friends of those affected by the appalling attacks in Russia which have claimed more than 30 innocent lives. The Canadian Olympic Family is deeply saddened and stands firmly with the people of Russia during this difficult time,” COC president Marcel Aubut said in a written statement.
The aim of the committee’s advertising campaign is to promote the Games, of course, but the focus is also on the Canadian athletes, and the Canadian winter that shapes them.
“The size of the campaign has increased dramatically,” compared with COC advertising during previous games, chief marketing officer Derek Kent said, while giving The Globe a sneak peek at the ads late last week.
The investment represents a shift in thinking for the COC in recent years, he said. In the past, a sponsorship deal with the COC gave an advertiser the right to use intellectual property such as the COC’s logo – the Olympic rings with the Maple Leaf above them. Now, however, the committee is doing more advertising itself in the belief that strengthening its brand will lead to a better value proposition when it is pitching itself to potential corporate sponsors.
“In Vancouver, we saw that Canadians got behind the team in ways we never saw before,” Mr. Kent said. “But it is difficult to renew sponsorships following a home-soil Games.”
Knowing this campaign was in the works was a way for the COC to tell prospective partners such as BMW, adidas and Oakley – all new Olympic sponsors this year – that it would be providing more marketing support to them. In January, the committee announced its biggest new sponsorship deal, signing Canadian Tire Co. Ltd. as a top tier “premier national partner.”
“The COC’s advertising has not always successfully featured athletes the way they’ve been doing it in London and now going into Sochi,” said Duncan Fulton, senior vice-president of communications and corporate affairs at Canadian Tire and chief marketing officer for its FGL Sports division, which includes Sport Chek and Sports Experts.
The new ads feature the athletes in dramatic shots against a winter landscape of blacks, greys and blues. A voice-over talks about how winter is at the core of who Canadians are (for the launch broadcast only, this commercial will be voiced by retired hockey player Steve Yzerman).
The COC also commissioned seven profiles of athletes such as bobsledder Kaillie Humphries and speed skater Charles Hamelin. The two- to three-minute videos will be made available to its broadcast partner, the CBC, and will also be posted online on YouTube and the Olympic.ca website. This type of video content is important in marketing, as it has been recognized for its ability to draw in audiences through the kind of stories they actually want to watch, as opposed to just ads.
“The more we can make heroes out of these athletes, the more inspirational it is for Canadians to follow them, the more private sector companies want to come in and support the COC. … It makes it an easier decision to want to invest against athletes who have some brand recognition associated with them,” Mr. Fulton said.
Canadian Tire has made that investment. Its Sport Chek brand launched its own Olympic campaign during the World Junior Hockey Championships broadcast on Boxing Day, featuring many of the athletes it has sponsored. During the Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7, it will also air commercials focusing on six individual athletes.
Mr. Fulton said the company’s media investment on television, online and elsewhere, will be comparable to other major Olympic sponsors such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Visa Inc.
Because the COC is a not-for-profit organization, it generally does not pay for ad space, but media donations have been way up compared with the London Games, said Cathy Collier, CEO of the media buying and planning agency OMD Canada.
“It’s well over double what we had in London,” she said. “Almost everybody we talked to was as enthusiastic as we are, which has resulted in a huge amount of media being donated.”
And it has expanded into new media as well: The partnership with Twitter that will be announced on Tuesday is the first of its kind for any Olympic Committee in the world. It gives the COC the ability to use Twitter’s data analytics to target messages about the Games not just to its own followers, but to people who have been talking about the Olympics or who show an interest in a particular sport or athlete.
The COC’s marketing strategy rests on rousing a sense of pride and identity by invoking the season. The ties between winter and the Canadian identity stretch back much further than when Pierre Trudeau quipped that our “main exports are hockey players and cold fronts.”
The COC and its agency, Proximity Canada, worked with a literary consultant to comb through 19th-century Canadian poetry looking for references to winter – which is a bit like finding a needle in a stack of needles. Excerpts from those poems were then used in other ads that will run following the launch.
For example, an ad with Kaillie Humphries features the poem In the Winter Woods by Frederick George Scott. Another ad featuring different athletes uses The Winter Spirit by Helen Fairbairn as its voice-over.
“In the context of Olympic work that can look very similar …we wanted something that could differentiate us,” said Tyler Turnbull, president of Proximity. “Winter is such a rallying cry for who we are.”