Hot.Cool.Yours. – Sliding Into Sochi 2014 & the Critical Role PR Provides for the Marketability of Olympic Athletes with Octagon’s Drew Johnson

Hot.Cool.Yours. – Sliding Into Sochi 2014 & the Critical Role PR Provides for the Marketability of Olympic Athletes with Octagon’s Drew Johnson

By: Natalie Mikolich

“Hot.Cool.Yours.” That is the slogan for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Games intended to reflect the national character of Russia and the values of the Sochi 2014 brand, as well as Sochi 2014’s progressive and innovative approach to the staging of the Games.

In less than ten days, over 2,500 athletes from more than 80 nations around the world will come together in Russia for the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games where 12 new sporting events have been added to the exciting schedule line-up.

With skiers, skaters, sledders and snowboarders getting underway on February 6th, people from around the world will be watching the Sochi 2014 Olympic athletes entertain and dazzle us while pushing their physical limits on snow and ice over the 17 days of the Games.

Along with the athletes, many global brands will also be fully activating their Sochi 2014 marketing and communication campaigns with new sponsors like Liberty Mutual, Kashi, and Smuckers making their debut as an Olympic sponsor.

Giving us an inside look at some of the hottest U.S. athletes to watch for at Sochi 2014, along with what some of the biggest Olympic brand marketing campaigns are coming out that we can expect to see, is Director of Strategic Communications at Octagon for their Olympics & Action Sports Division, Drew Johnson.

Having represented a gold medalist in every Games since 1984 including some of the most decorated and marketable athletes of their respective Games like Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, Natalie Coughlin, Kelly Clark, Seth Wescott, Octagon’s Johnson took the time to share more with us about how critical public relations is for their marketability of their athletes along with utilizing public relations to help their clients achieve their career goals.

Here is more with Drew Johnson in his detailed Q&A with us:

1.First, can you tell us more about your division at Octagon and what your team focuses on for your clients?

Octagon’s Olympics & Action Sports division is a global leader in the marketing and management of individual sport athletes. Our history dates back to the memorable 1984 Summer Olympics, the significance being the LA Games were the first Olympics that athletes were allowed to commercialize their individual rights (ie. name, likeness, image).  

From the beginning, our efforts were deeply rooted in representing the athlete’s rights in the commercial marketplace and served as the foundation to the development of athlete-driven marketing programs and platforms that has served our clients well over the years. We have a specialized staff with specific areas of expertise - PR, Marketing, Production & Content Development, Legal, and Client Management - and combined experience of more than 80 years working directly within Olympics and action sports.  As an agency, we have represented a gold medalist in every Games since 1984, many of whom have been the most decorated and marketable athletes of their respective Games.

2.Who are some of your clients that you represent in your division at Octagon? Which of your athletes will be competing in the Winter Olympics in Sochi who we should keep an eye out for to watch?

We have a strong and diverse roster of clients including Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, Natalie Coughlin, Kelly Clark, Seth Wescott, Hannah Teter, Alana Blanchard, Andy Macdonald, Mitchie Brusco, Nathan Adrian, Jack Robinson and Ry Craike, among others.   

The start of the New Year has brought more attention and interest in the Winter Olympics across mainstream media and the general public as the athletes seek to qualify for the Olympic team.  Some of the leading storylines heading into Sochi include veterans like Kelly Clark, the winningest snowboarder in history and first American to capture gold in halfpipe (2002) who has secured a spot on what will be her fourth Olympics; fellow halfpiper Hannah Teter looking to add to her Olympic medal collection (2006 gold, 2010 silver);; two-time Olympian and seven-time X Games gold medalist Nate Holland looking to earn his first Olympic medal in snowboard cross; Alaskan-native and three-time Olympian Kikkan Randal is positioned to win America’s first cross-county skiing medal since 1976, which would also be the first ever cross-country medal for an American female in Olympic history; seven-time X Games gold medalist Jamie Anderson and Ryan Stassel  are poised for their first Olympics and will help introduce slopestyle snowboarding to the Games; and Lindsay Van who helped lead the push to have women’s ski jumping added to the Olympic program.

3.For the upcoming Winter Olympics, can you share with us what some of the new big athlete and brand marketing campaigns are surrounding Sochi and any of your athletes that are apart of them?

One of the most prominent Olympic campaigns continues to be P&G’s “Thanks Mom” campaign that was launched back in the fall and has been part of P&G’s Olympic sponsorship program since the Vancouver Games. They have done a very good job of weaving in their various brands across the multi-platform campaign (print, digital, TV) utilizing the strong PR storyline of the significant roles that moms have played in the lives of their children. We have had several clients involved in each campaign around the past two Games including Jamie Anderson (Olay) and Seth Wescott (Vicks) who are featured in P&G’s Sochi initiatives.

Liberty Mutual is a new USOC sponsor for Sochi and has developed a solid campaign, #RISE, that centers on the power of the human spirit to come back from life’s setbacks.  Team Liberty Mutual features 13 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, including clients Seth Wescott who is recovering from a torn ACL injury suffered last spring and two-time Olympian Chris Klug who made history in becoming the first (and only) organ transplant recipient to win an Olympic medal when he captured bronze in alpine snowboarding at the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

Another new sponsor to the Olympic family is Smuckers, which marks the company’s first ever Olympic sponsorship, who has tabbed Kelly Clark for their Folgers and Smuckers Uncrustable’s brands. The Kellogg Company has been successful with their Olympic program in recent Games and will now incorporate many of its brands as part of their activation including Kashi, which is featuring Kikkan Randall in a power of positive eating initiative. 

4.When it comes to PR for your athletes, can you tell us why PR is important for your clients leading up to the Summer or Winter Olympic Games?

Sport has a unique position in the entertainment marketplace that is deeply rooted in its emotional connectivity with friends, family, fans, communities, and countries. It is real, it is powerful, and it’s the athletes who are at the center of it all.

In order to understand why PR is important to our clients and business, it is critical to understand the larger role that PR plays within the sports business industry overall.  In more cases than not, when people discuss “sports business” the conversation is typically centered upon “marketing” (sponsorships, ad campaigns, financials, ROI, etc) with little acknowledgment of PR as part of the marketing mix. Marketing is communications. PR is the area of expertise focused on ensuring such communications are strategic and effective. Simply stated, marketing is PR, and PR is marketing.

As we enter the Olympic window, the athlete’s opportunity for a promotional platform will shine greatest during the 17 days of competition in Sochi. However, it is the weeks, months, and years leading up to the Games that are most crucial to the athletes, yet they have no real, sustainable platform.

A great case study in understanding the critical role that PR serves in the marketability of athletes is the keynote presentation that Peter Carlisle, Octagon’s Managing Director of Olympics & Action Sports, delivered as the Executive-in-Residence by the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at UMass-Amherst in the fall of 2012 titled - “Marketing an Olympic Icon: Behind the Business of a Global Sports Superstar” (watch it here - It is this fundamental understanding and shared belief system that we as a division strategize about on a daily basis. We utilize PR to help create storytelling platforms for our clients to achieve their career objectives. 

5.As for your clients in the Winter Olympics working with some of the big brands, can you tell us what role PR plays for some of these brands with your athletes as spokespersons?

Consider some of the partnerships I mentioned above, each one of these campaigns are rooted in PR elements that help the respective brands advance their corporate message. P&G is tapping into our affinity for mom’s to leverage their large offerings of consumer goods (skin care, cold medicine, household products) and Liberty Mutual is showcasing athletes overcoming setbacks to appeal to our sympathetic hearts with a reminder that Liberty Mutual offers insurance that can help aid in in the midst of difficult life circumstances.  Athletes, and their storylines, help sponsors bring to life their corporate message by utilizing the emotions and successes of the athletes. How each brand goes about executing these campaigns can vary, but inevitably each of them includes athletes participating in media days on behalf of the sponsors as well as specific social media obligations in an effort to leverage the media’s interest in the athletes to secure and promote the campaign message. Any effective marketing initiative, particularly surrounding the Olympic Games, is going to utilize earned media (both traditional and social) to help bring real-life voices to the overall campaign.