Emergent Branding at the Olympics

Photo from Julia Mancuso’s Facebook.

I was slightly amused by the media this past Olympics. It was interesting to me. For several years now, Lindsey Vonn has spoken about her desire to be the “next Picabo Street,” to be the American woman ski racer. To that end, Lindsey has spent lots of time perfecting her image, refining her message, and generally allowing herself to be the center of the five-ring circus that is the Olympics. This sort of messaging is familiar and comfortable to the media: they know how to do interviews. They know how to construct stories and images around an athlete, an athlete that’s undergone media coaching, whose agent or PR person has sit down and constructed a story and image… It’s really not that different from dealing with traditional branding.

On the other hand, there’s athletes like Julia Mancuso. I love Julia. She’s done nothing but focus on having a good time and skiing well, and in turn, that focus has allowed her to win. But, her focus also means that she hasn’t spent a lot of time building her brand or media presence. Instead, Julia has been an avid user of Facebook and Twitter, using these tools to communicate with friends and family. When Julia uses these tools, she sounds like she’s talking to her friends, not the media. And, these facts, combined with her bubbly personality, the fact that she is the most medalled woman skier in US history (yes, even more than Lindsey - she won her gold in ’06 in GS, and two silvers here in Vancouver) and her interesting background (Julia lives in Maui!) have allowed Julia’s reputation to grow in a natural way. Julia has an image, but it wasn’t based on some set of things she wanted to communicate about herself. Julia’s brand is an emergent brand. And while some people are fascinated by this, the media just doesn’t know what to do about it. They quote Julia from her Twitter while complaining that she didn’t go through the media tent after her runs (says Wired: “After her first run of the GS, Mancuso didn’t come through the mixed zone. (Incidentally, this is a big no-no for athletes, who are supposed to have to come by the press, but what are you going to do?) … But about 30 minutes after her run ended, Mancuso posted on Twitter.”), they try to shadow her by Lindsey’s presence. It’s funny to watch Julia too - she doesn’t understand why the media can’t handle her. She told Sports Illustrated, “Why does the media have to have just one star? … It seems like a popularity contest.

While the media is busy trying to figure out how to deal with Julia and Lindsey’s failure relative to expectations (you can see my view about this on my Society page), there’s another interesting trend. The younger generation is just not watching the Olympics. They’ve moved over to the world of action sports (OK, so they may have watched Shaun White win his gold in the Olympics). At an event like X Games, instead of shuffling competitors through media tents, they’ve first got to walk through the fans - the fans are front and center. Not all these athletes tweet and blog, but their sports are organized throughout to be more approachable to fans: summer camps and promotion events, competitions, and even action sports media. Media focused around action sports tend to encompass a broader range: it’s not just shots of them competing, but shots of them partying, traveling, and training. The athletes are in control of their development as a brand, in conjunction with (not controlled by) their sponsors. The focus is around the athlete as a person, not just a brand. This interaction forces them to be more transparent, and thus, more emergent. Their brand isn’t just what they say it is, but also what the fans say it is, too.

So why are kids attracted to this? Sure, it’s been painted as a “cool” thing to do, but I think there’s something deeper here. Even if you’re not a huge participant in one of these sports, it’s still possible to feel like a fan. These emergent brands feel authentic to the fans, they feel like they know something about these athletes that’s unique and personal. I’d say that it’s akin to being a fan of an indie band: the thrill of discovering something new and cool that no one else knows about, and being able to talk about it with authority. Ten years ago, there was a sense of shock and awe at all these crazy sports in the Olympics - man, have you ever heard of curling?! Can you believe that crazy downhill course the skiers are on!? Now, the power to follow these sports is just a Google search away, and it doesn’t feel that out there. If we want to engage the next generation in the Olympics, we’ve got to give them room to feel like an authentic fan of these sports and athletes. And while the media and misguided Olympians might focus on deriving an image and distributing that image through as many articles, interviews and TV segments they can, others will reach out directly to the fans, and make them feel like they really know what’s going on.

Oh, and speaking of emergent behaviors, dang! - those Canadians are really fans of the stadium-wide wave.

Lastly, a quick thank you to Michael Spencer of Ego Sports Management for helping to develop these thoughts; he is one of the smartest people involved in action and Olympic sports.