Mark Kass: Olympic pins, so much more than just a brand storyWhen I first stepped into the East End boozer in a quiet corner of Stratford just before Christmas, it felt like I'd become an extra in the background of a Guy Ritchie movie. Men were huddled in a corner whispering, planning, plotting and growling – it was plain to see that plenty of deals were being cobbled together.
But they weren't haggling over the price of second-hand cars or planning the next "blag". They were laying down the foundations of what's going to become London's number one spectator sport during the Olympic Games: pin trading.
It was my first "meet" and it was a little surreal to say the least. When the Guy Ritchie crew joined a mixed bag of 20 or so grown men and women: bags, cases, boards, ring binders and pockets stuffed full of an amazing array of Olympic and Paralympic Games lapel badges and pins flew open. It all went crazy with old and new pins being swapped and traded like I've only ever seen before in the street markets of far off lands.
It was a little scary as I could feel the need to get stuck in building up and, dare I say it, it felt a bit "geeky" being a part of this. Quite ironic really, that the venue of the meet was in a great little pub called the Railway Tavern since I felt I was among the train spotters of the merchandising world!
Having spent the afternoon in the company of some of the friendliest, most knowledgeable and totally dedicated people I've ever come across, I got home, researched this phenomenon and realised that this was just the beginning of something big that was about to burst into our East End lives. Clearly, it's big business too, so I decided to delve further.
Those in the know say that as you step off the plane in an Olympic Host City, you fail to notice the glitz and glamour of countless lapel badges or pins displayed on shirts, caps, scarves, waistcoats, lanyards, towels and sashes. Worn by everyone from officials, guides, the media and shopkeepers, everyone and, in particular, the vast armies of "pinheads" are keen to show off their collections and maybe swap one of theirs for something of yours.
The reasons for pins being commissioned to represent all-things-Olympic are limitless, but the phenomenal range produced by sponsors, corporate partners and official commercial providers shows what big business commercial association with the Games is. But pins weren't originally designed to show off brands or promote the Games; they were originally sold to fund the Olympiad.
The 1912 Games in Stockholm saw the first commercially available pins on sale (before Stockholm, they were cardboard discs and only worn by officials and the IOC (International Olympic Committees)) and as pin trading grew in popularity, it did so unprecedentedly so that by the infamous Berlin Games of 1936, over a million pins had been sold to raise funds.
Pin trading continued to grow and supported a huge Olympic memorabilia and merchandising industry. By the time the Los Angeles Olympics came along, an estimated 17 million pins were being traded on street corners, in cafes and in dedicated, but as yet unofficial pin trading areas, across the Host City. Such was the size of the industry, vast numbers of counterfeit pins started to emerge in an attempt to cash in on the rise of pin mania.
Realising the huge potential for pin collecting, the 1988 Calgary Olympics saw the first official pin trading centre established on-site, headed up by one of the world's best known brands and principal global Olympic Worldwide Sponsors, Coca Cola.
But Coke didn't just take over a pub conservatory, put up a few posters and invite in a few traders. They created the first ever purpose built and fully branded Olympic pin trading centre drawing in crowds of more than 17,000 new and potential pinheads of the world to gather and trade on one site and another a few miles away on a university campus that attracted another 5,000 daily visits.
The 1992 Winter Games at Albertville in France attracted more than a third of a million collectors who traded more than 1.2 million pins from 6,000 square foot dedicated tent backed up by a fleet of "pinmobiles" and a double-decker bus that travelled the roads of France to capture the spirit (and, of course, the revenue opportunities) of pin mania. Barcelona saw half a million dedicated traders, but in 1996 the pin epidemic had gone totally bonkers with 1.5 million traders on-site and three million pins changing hands at two centres in 40,000 square foot of converted freight warehousing in Atlanta. At the Sydney Games in 2000, Coca Cola started trading six months before the Games in temporary kiosks replacing it with an iconic, 12,000 square foot purpose built centre in the shape of a bright red illuminated Coke bottle laying on its side.
Hand-in-hand with the trading and dealing among collectors, a global business has grown out of pin trading. Coke and other merchandise providers have sold millions of pins that generate significant revenues and shamelessly promote their brands. Coke run brand focussed "activation" spectator events alongside these remarkable pin centres and LOCOG (The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) stands to generate huge sums from the sales of tens of thousands of official pins, all of which are channelled back into paying for the running of both the Olympic and Paralympics.
A couple of the "Pin Gurus" at Coca Cola, who are now resident here in the UK until after the Games, told me that for the first time since their involvement in event licensing, they would be channelling all proceeds from sales of Coke pins at London 2012 to the official Olympic charity. They wouldn't divulge targets, but I suspect they're expecting a significant donation to be made.
This is an incredible move on the part of Coke and represents their true commitment to investing in creating a sustainable Olympic movement for the future as well as solidifying their own brand story.
When the Games end, collectors will take home their London 2012 Coca-Cola pins and proudly display them in kitchens, dens, lounges and studies across the globe. Some will get bored of them and stick them in a cupboard for the grandkids, but if they consider giving them away, it's a near 100% dead-cert that none will give them away for nothing.
Some rare pins are trading on eBay at nearly £4,000 each (NB: beware of fakes)! But for those thinking they might flog them off to the highest bidder then "good luck" as most will have little or no commercial value after the flame's blown out.
Coke will, of course, be rather chuffed to think that trading and selling went on post-Games as any deal done around the Coke name provides them yet another brand-strengthening story and creates yet more long-lasting impressions of the Coke name. And this is exactly why event licensing, product merchandising and sponsorship activation is so powerful for sponsors.
Coke – the new owners of Innocent Smoothies brand who will soon be activating their London 2012 sponsorship programme – have made a really bold move in the corporate social responsibility arena. Perhaps this generous community investment will attract even more new pin heads and underpin Coke's growing global corporate commitment to giving something back to its customer base.
Although I'm not CEO of a major global brand, I now get pin trading and the concept of business giving back. I strongly suggest everyone in the business world gets it too. There will always be fans of your brand and they can do no wrong if you don't. Think about clever ways of promoting your brand story and aligning yourselves with your local community... wouldn't it be good to get your fans talking about your business in their local pub?
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Mark Kass is an entrepreneur and a Director of an East London business support agency. He is a vocal ambassador for SMEs representing small businesses in consultations with LOCOG, the ODA (Olympic Delivery Authority), OPLC (Olympic Park Legacy Company) and the East London Boroughs. Now an avid fan of the Games, Mark showed no interest in sport until his East London "manor" pitched and won the rights to host the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. He's a passionate advocate of the global opportunities the Games brings for SME's of all sizes and wants to see more people become entrepreneurs in East London and beyond. To follow him on Twitter click here.
Honav is the official manufacturer of pins for London 2012