How the Canadian Olympic Committee remade its brand for Rio

The COC's Chief Marketing Officer talks about his team’s multi-year plan to engage the public in the most digital Games ever

Canadian Olympic Committee chief marketing officer Derek Kent.

Canadian Olympic Committee chief marketing officer Derek Kent.

Derek Kent knows a thing or two about sports advertising. The Ontario native worked with Nike for eight years, as both a spokesperson and media relations lead. That experience, along with a genuine passion for athletics, has brought him to where he is today: for the last several years, he’s worked as the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Chief Marketing Officer. Building on the momentum of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Kent and his team have overseen a massive growth in the Canadian Olympic brand, all with one goal in mind—to connect Canadians with their athletes, and get them to care about sport.

How has the Canadian Olympic brand has changed over the last few years?

Well, the Vancouver Olympics changed the trajectory of the Olympic movement in this country. It rallied the nation, it made it okay for Canadians to wave the flag and cheer loudly and proudly. What we wanted to do, as the Canadian Olympic Team, was take all that momentum and engage with our athletes and our fans in ways that we’d never done before.

The first thing we did was create a plan, and part of the plan was this big, hairy, audacious goal: to transform Canada through the power of sport. From a marketing perspective, what we wanted to do was become the most well-funded and recognizable sports brand in the country.

Our journey on the marketing front began with the London Olympics in 2012. We hired an agency and did insight work with our athletes. We asked them, “What does it mean to be an Olympian?” Alex Despatie, the Olympic diver, said, “I’m going to give everything that I have to be the best, and to be a contender.” That led to the call to action, “Give Your Everything,” and that was our first foray into storytelling in an integrated fashion. For the Sochi Olympics, we talked to athletes about what it meant to be a winter Olympian. They talked about having “winter in their DNA”—that led to the creation of the hashtag #WeAreWinter.

For Rio, we again spoke to a number of athletes, and one of the insights we pulled was from the men’s rowing team. They said, “Gold medals are awarded in the summer, but they are earned in the winter.” It’s that notion that as Canadian summer athletes, winter is in our blood. The big idea this year is that we’re coming to the Olympics with fire in our heart, and ice in our veins—the call to action is, “Ice In Our Veins.”

What do you think was missing from previous Olympic advertising campaigns?

The major gap that we wanted to fill was to have more integrated and emotionally connected advertising. We really wanted to up our game in terms of the quality of our storytelling; we realized that we wanted to create high quality content that would strike an emotional chord.

#WeAreWinter was certainly the most successful of all the campaigns we’ve done, and part of the rationale for why that is, is that it’s a concept that defines us as a country. People embraced the hashtag—it spoke to both our winter athletes, and to Canadians as a whole. Whether it was a kid playing on a frozen pond at 30 degrees below, or someone who went for a cross country ski after a big snowstorm, people saw themselves in the message.

Do you think that Canadians have an easier time connecting with campaigns for the Winter Olympics?

My job as the chief marketing officer is to speak for both winter and summer athletes. There’s no question, if you look at performance, the winter Olympic team dominates. That said, the summer team has performed quite well. When you look at the “Ice In Our Veins” campaign, we’re trying to bring some of that winter swagger to summer.

When we were building the campaign, we did explore the idea that our summer athletes might consider themselves underdogs—that’s a narrative we could have worked with. But when we spoke with them they said, “Absolutely not—we’re here to win, and we can win.” So the “Ice In Our Veins” call to action came from those conversations—when the pressure’s on, they’re going to deliver on the world stage.

How have you used social media to market the campaigns?

One of our mantras is “fans first,” and one of the ways we can communicate with them with a great return on investment is digitally. In 2011 we had two people on our digital brand team, and now we have close to a dozen.

We’re investing in the three C’s—channels, content and community. Our digital strategy for Rio is mobile first—we were 30% mobile enabled in Sochi and we’ll be 70% mobile for Rio. We’re engaging in new platforms—Vines, gifs, Snapchat.

How do you leverage individual athletes’ social media to your advantage?

One of the reasons that we’re so engaged in social media, is that our athletes are primarily young. They’re a generation that have been raised on social—they don’t think anything of posting something. When I go back and think about even five years ago, and how social-media savvy athletes were, the difference is there—this new generation is extremely digitally savvy. We want to talk their language, and we do. And where possible, we assist them. We give our campaign athletes imagery and backgrounds to use on their different platforms, and we engage with them online.

At Canadian Business, we’ve written about the Toronto Raptors’ “We The North” campaign. What are your thoughts on it?

Well, the “We Are Winter” campaign came first. And you know, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I do think the idea behind both is universal, and no one has a monopoly on it. There is a new confidence in how Canadians are approaching and thinking about sport—they’re demanding that their athletes and teams perform at their best.