• Transform magazine
  • September 22, 2019

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Soft power dreams

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There is a strong relationship between international sporting events like the Olympics and nation brand value. How does the legacy of those events impact the value of a nation brand and the reputation of the host country or city? Brittany Golob investigates

Corruption, disorganisation, empty, expensive, violence and fear are just some of the words used to describe the Rio Olympics held this summer in Brazil’s cultural capital. The sporting competition itself came off without a hitch, but the impact the negative perception that this Games will have on Brazil’s nation brand is yet to be seen. In early indications, Brand Finance’s Nation Brand Value index reports an increase in tourism, but the value of the nation brand is down by 30%. The brand valuation consultancy expects it to drop further.

And yet, that is the outlook placed on almost every Olympics and major international sporting event by a critical media. The truth behind brand value for these events lies in their legacies. Major international sporting events are held for a plethora of reasons, yet one of the most pervasive is the desire to improve a nation or city brand. Chris Nurko, global chairman at Futurebrand, which undertakes the annual Nation Brand Index, says the Olympic Games in particular can reinforce the associations people already have with a nation or city brand, transform opinions or validate negative perceptions. “You have to determine what your strategy is. If it’s a short term strategy for political success, that’s different than a long term strategy for the development of the country brand.”

Nurko’s definition of a country brand is, “The sum total image and associations of what people believe, think and perceive about a country.” With regards to international events, the country brand is comprised of social, economic and political perceptions. For hosts, international events are a function of the country brand strategy.

Journalist and former BBC sports editor Mihir Bose says the economic implications of major events have changed the way countries decide to bid for events and the ways in which they are organised. In developing countries, like Brazil, Qatar and South Africa, the choice to host the World Cup can be attributed to the desire to enhance their nation brands. “I remember South Africa bidding for the World Cup and there was Nelson Mandela, a saint of our time, and yet, he wanted to have the World Cup in South Africa to prove, ‘We can hold this,’” Bose says. Events, he adds, should be hosted by every kind of country, developed and developing, if they are to be truly representative of the world audience.

Yet there is political, social and economic risk at hand, as Brazil may well have discovered this summer. Though it was heralded as the ‘Carnival Games,’ the political changes, economic difficulties and social challenges that emerged in the years since Rio won the Olympic bid changed the landscape for the 2016 Games.

For events such as world championships for individual sports, the Commonwealth Games and the Pan American Games, it’s often easier for developing or smaller countries to secure a bid and to successfully host an event due to the decreased scale. Glasgow hosted the 2014 Commonwealth Games and developed a visual identity and brand strategy – alongside Glasgow-based brand firm Tangent Graphic – that put Glasgow on the map as a modern European city with a thriving arts and creative scene. “One of our core objectives was to help build the global reputation of both Glasgow and Scotland,” Andrew Stevenson, co-founder of Tangent Graphic, says. “Through the Commonwealth Games identity, we aimed to reflect the character and personality of its residents through a bold, vibrant visual language.” The agency was also behind the ‘People Make Glasgow’ campaign that rebranded the city itself and changed perceptions of Glasgow within the UK.

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“A NATION BRAND IS THE SUM TOTAL IMAGE AND ASSOCIATIONS OF WHAT PEOPLE BELIEVE, THINK AND PERCEIVE ABOUT A COUNTRY”

As the games wrapped up, Qatari officials 7,300km away from Glasgow were preparing for the World Men’s Handball Championships and the World Boxing Championships. The 2015 events paved the way for Qatar’s World Cup in 2022. Sujid Rehman head of branding for the World Boxing Championships – Doha, said at the Middle East Brand Summit in May, “Qatar has been at the forefront of hosting sporting events in the region.” However, he has had to both prepare for international sporting competition and scrutiny as well as educate the home audience about live sporting events – not a traditional leisure activity in Qatar. However, his work paid off as Qataris attended the events and an Olympic programme to expose children to sports other than football is now in place nationwide.

Hosting World Cups and world championships is almost becoming a prerequisite to hosting the Olympics. In 2014, South Korea – itself a former Olympic and World Cup host – held the Asian Games in Incheon. The branding for that event was designed around diversity. Even the harbour seal mascots were representative of promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and beyond.

For those events, and for the Rio Olympics, the legacy will determine the ultimate impact on each host’s nation brand. For others in the less-recent past, like Sochi, London and South Africa, the reputational change has already been apparent. Sochi, politically, is seen as a pet project of president Vladimir Putin. “Sochi was hijacked by Putin to be a political issue. It was a political statement to the west. Politics overshadowed the social and sporting agenda,” says Nurko. The International Olympic Committee’s report on Sochi’s legacy points to infrastructure and sporting venue developments in the Sochi region. However, the significant investment was required largely because Sochi has a population under 400,000, about the size of Wichita, Kansas, and had little existing infrastructure.

South Africa’s World Cup, on the other hand, unified the social, political and economic strategies behind the country’s nation brand to the benefit of its international reputation. “Developing countries are trying to do two things: establish that they have an infrastructure and that they are no longer developing. They’re striving to attract tourism or investment. There was a mandate to put South Africa on the world map and change people’s opinions,” Nurko says. South Africa did this to greater success than Brazil when it hosted the subsequent World Cup, he adds.

The legacy of the London 2012 Olympics is apparent in terms of nation branding, sporting achievement and international reputation.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog) set one of its key objectives as establishing a physical, sporting and social legacy from the Games. One of its unintended legacies has been in digital communications. As the first true digital-first Games, the web and social platforms Locog built contributed to the smooth running of the event. But it was also a legacy that Alex Balfour, Locog’s head of new media, passed on to the Rio committee. “I think we set a pretty high bar and we certainly took the Games from being an analog event to being a principally digital event.”
Balfour says the physical legacy of London 2012 is apparent still in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park venues, the redevelopment of the Stratford area and the sustainable parklands revitalised in the Lee Valley area.

Yet it is also present in the way Transport for London (TfL) approaches major events. The wayfinding and signage it created during the Games worked in tandem with its many streams of digital and offline information about travel. TfL still implements some of the strategies it had in place in 2012 for current hotspot issues and minor crises and has benefitted from many major infrastructural improvements. “The Games allowed TfL and transport operators the opportunity to review how services were managed and identify initiatives that worked well and could be used in day-to-day operations or to support events going forward,” Danielle Eddington, a press officer with TfL, says. It even still uses the magenta from the London 2012 brand colour palette for its wayfinding for special events.

Nurko says London 2012 delivered on its social, political and economic objectives. To justify what Balfour calls an “Utterly ridiculous event,” in terms of scale, and the £15-20bn spent, a legacy strategy is a necessity. London 2012 revived the city as a place for investment, changed perceptions of the capital and of the UK as tourist destinations and created a long-lasting impact on sport. “The ceremonies put London on the global map, almost making it the capital of the world...The UK increased on every measure and is currently the 12th-strongest country brand,” Nurko says. He calls the success of Team GB in Rio a direct legacy of the London Games.

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Sport England, the public body that oversees sport funding and participation, says 1.75m additional people are playing sport in the UK now, compared to when the UK won the Olympic bid in 2005. Even more compelling is that since Sport England’s viral ‘This Girl Can’ campaign which sought to change perceptions about female participation in sport, women have been driving that increase in participation.
CEO of Sport England, Jennie Price says grassroots participation in sport has been a focus of Locog and of Sport England since the 2005 bid. “They remind people about the breadth of sport. What something like the Olympics, or any multisport competition, does is to remind people that there are things like fencing and handball and things you only see on television at those moments.” Then, the individual sporting bodies become more active around the competitions and run have-a-go sessions or performances to encourage interest and participation in their sports.

Balfour says this has not been an easy thing to achieve, “The one legacy that was always difficult was about sport participation. it’s something that’s normally envisaged as part of the Games, and there’s a lot of debate about whether any Games has delivered that.” But, he says, the emotional impact of the Olympics reaches the spectators and host country audiences over the longer term.

In addition to the focus on grassroots-level sporting participation, Price says a notable legacy of the London 2012 Olympics was the success of Team GB. In Beijing, Team GB ranked fourth with 19 golds, in London it was third with 29 and in Rio, coming second only to the US, Team GB racked up 27 golds. “Team GB is admired internationally because it has performed well now, way above expectation for at least three consecutive games,” Price says. “That is not uncommon on one Olympics. To do it three times in a row is absolutely extraordinary. There’s no question that success breeds success and I think we have a fantastically supported team.”

Team GB hockey midfielder and gold medallist Susannah Townsend says success at the international level can help boost participation at the grassroots level over the long term. “We try and promote sports for people to get out there and play. I’d like to think that we’ve upped participation by a big, big amount. We’re in an exciting time for women’s sport, because girls want to play.”

The UK’s nation brand has changed as well. Futurebrand’s index didn’t record the UK in the top 10 in 2005, the year London won the Olympic bid. By 2012, it had jumped to 11th and now sits at 12th in the world. In Brand Finance’s rankings, the UK was at fourth in 2014 and now, since Brexit, it has dropped a place to fifth in terms of brand value.

“Sport has become a symbol of power and authority,” Bose says and major international events are the chief manifestation of this relationship. For that reason, countries and cities decide to take the high risk of hosting World Cups, Olympics, championships and other events. “It’s a high cost and it’s a high risk, but it does provide a high return if you get it right,” Nurko says.

For those that do get it right, like South Africa in 2010 which compelled the BBC to say the country’s economy had rebranded – words like pride, reputation, momentum, positive impact, benefit and community become associated with that place. Creating a long lasting boost to a country’s or city’s reputation relies on the way it manages both the event itself and its legacy. Let the games begin.