From raising money to activating maximum brand exposure Olympic sponsors are harnessing power of pins
Sunday, 22 April 2012
The Olympic pin craze, I get: having whiled away many childhood hours with my stamp collection - which briefly and, with the benefit of hindsight, rather worryingly, diversified into postmarks and, yes I admit it, locomotive number-plates - I can understand the zeal with which people all over the world set about accumulating these shiny mementoes of an undeniably special event.
What I could never quite grasp, until asked to tackle this article, was why some Olympic sponsors took the whole business so seriously.
I mean, were they hoping to sell more, say, Coke – or electricity – to hardcore pin-collectors?
I didn't think that could be the explanation, but frankly I was at a bit of a loss to comprehend what else it might be.
Not for the first time in matters of Olympic business, it was Michael Payne, former International Olympic Committee (IOC) marketing director, who set me on the path to enlightenment.
Explaining that the Olympic pin has a heritage stretching back well before the concept of Olympic marketing, as we understand it today, was developed, Payne told me that Olympic teams used to bring their pins to the Games and exchange them with other teams.
"That really began to take off at the Los Angeles Olympics," he said.
Then the general public began "actively to participate in the Olympic experience of 'swapping between cultures'".
And once the public got involved, Olympic sponsors started to view pins as a medium for telling the story of their involvement in the Games.
"It was a currency," Payne says.
"[The Olympic pin] is a vehicle that creates the dialogue between people that symbolises what the Olympics is all about in terms of bringing cultures together...
"The local population becomes engaged with a shoebox full of pins that ends up becoming a little heirloom.
"They are not per se being produced for the collectors; the bulk of the market is a new market each time."
The very first sponsor pin is said to have been introduced as long ago as 1960, for the Squaw Valley Winter Games, by a company called Sylvania Electric Products.
However, it is Coca-Cola that has probably played the most active role of any Olympic sponsor in helping pin-collecting to blossom as a pursuit.
The beverage-maker will be issuing "around 200" Coke-branded badges linked to London 2012.
"Coca-Cola shares the Olympic values of participation, friendship and respect," the company told me.
"And through our involvement we look to provide opportunities for people to participate with their friends and family in as many ways as possible.
"Pin trading is a craze that sits at the heart of the Olympic Movement as it embodies many of these ideals."
Since 1988, Coca-Cola has also sponsored an official pin trading centre at each Olympic Games.
Reverting to Payne's "currency" analogy, these are a bit like exchanges and banks for pin-collectors rolled into one.
At London, there will be two pin trading centres, where enthusiasts are expected to gather, both to make deals with each other and to be present when traditional "pin of the day" sets are released.
Some sponsors view pins primarily as an aid to employee engagement with their Olympic sponsorship campaigns and a reminder to customers of their involvement.
Such companies might issue no more than a single pin design.
"We have produced a run that we have issued to every single employee with a customer-facing role," Robert Hennessy of retailer John Lewis told me.
"It is part of the uniform for the Olympic year."
Others are using pins in a greater variety of ways.
EDF, the French electricity company, expects, for example, to produce about 30 pins in all.
"If you have one pin design, that is one chance of interacting with people; if you do 30, that's 30 chances," says Stephanie Godderidge, UK brand manager for the company's London 2012 programme.
She describes pins as the "cornerstone" of the group's premium programme under which a range of items, from diaries to umbrellas, are being produced bearing the EDF and London 2012 branding.
"They are a cornerstone because they are collectible and because they are part of the wider activity of attending a Games," Godderidge says.
"Issuing pins also mirrors what LOCOG (the London 2012 Organising Committee) are doing."
The company is issuing a mixture of, on the one hand, relatively simple designs that are widely distributed and, on the other, more complex badges in comparatively small edition sizes of 500 to 1,000.
Its sequence of "x days to go" pins, for example, features firework displays for the Olympics and a range of venues for the Paralympics.
"I didn't want just a number on them," Godderidge explains.
"I wanted them to be interesting and wearable."
Probably the most complicated pin-related exercise EDF has engaged on, in terms of the logistics involved, was when it gave away 500,000 pins to customers as part of a "thank you" campaign.
"Customers were given the chance to enter a prize draw for various prizes, including tickets for the Games," Godderidge says.
"Three million of these opportunities were mailed, of which a random 500,000 had a pin included in the envelope.
"The number of people who subsequently went onto our website to see if they had won anything was much higher among those who had received the pin pack than those who hadn't."
Godderidge acknowledges that initially she had to argue her case quite persistently with colleagues to get such an extensive pin programme approved, partly because some saw pin badges, understandably enough, as "a bit passé".
Ironically, it was new technology in the form of eBay that helped her to win her case by demonstrating the value many attach to the most desirable Olympic pins.
"We realised that our '200 days to go' pin, of which 500 were produced, was selling for £96 ($154/€117)," she says.
At Games-time, the company will probably have some pin-sets on hand to present to guests invited to participate in its corporate hospitality programme.
"It's being part of it; it's a way of putting your logo on people's lanyards; and it's fun," Godderidge concludes.
Also worth saying is that both EDF and Coca-Cola have found ways of harnessing the intense interest in Olympic pins to raise money for charity.
When collectors contact EDF asking for one of the company's Paralympic pins, they are asked in return to make a donation to ParalympicsGB.
Coca-Cola says that all profits from its licensed merchandise sales, including pins, go to StreetGames.
To find out more about pin collecting visit insidegamescollecting by clicking here.
Or you can join our dedicated collecting facebook page by clicking here.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.
Honav is the official manufacturer of pins for London 2012