In the space of just 17 days - the duration of the Olympic Games - an athlete's dreams can be realised or shattered, but the Olympic goals of the brands involved take much longer to achieve.
It is nearly four years since Lloyds TSB became the first Tier One sponsor of London 2012. Since then, LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) has signed up partners at pace. Blue-chip brands including British Airways, BP, BMW and EDF quickly came on board, while other companies such as Cadbury and Deloitte have taken up lower-level sponsorships.
Due to the relative brevity of the Games itself, marketing activity must take effect well in advance to achieve maximum impact. Yet most partners, with the notable exceptions of Lloyds and EDF, have run only limited activity to date in an attempt to avoid Olympic overkill.
'It's surprising that not more Olympics work is standing out by now,' says Antony Marcou, managing director of sports media agency Sports Revolution. 'Most consumers would be hard-pressed to identify any campaign at this stage, which suggests that now is the ideal time to start making some noise. The ideal strategy for any brand that is building a campaign around the Olympics is an ascending ramp of activity, reaching a climax in 2012. If brands leave it too late, their involvement risks looking like a corporate badging exercise. It needs to evolve credibly, over time, for consumers to believe in it.'
Perhaps the most eye-catching work so far has come from Cadbury, London 2012's Official Treat Provider. In August, the confectionery company launched a high-profile 'Spots vs. Stripes' campaign - its first Olympic-themed marketing since becoming a second-tier partner. The integrated push aims to stimulate the spirit of play.
'It's an interesting campaign and very brave. If Cadbury maintains momentum until the Games, it will have done very well, so I assume it has plans to rejuvenate the activity before the Olympics, when the big global sponsors like Coca-Cola kick off their campaigns,' says Jonathan McCallum, head of sponsorship at OgilvyAction. 'Cadbury has created an interesting proposition. Some brands can be too serious about the Olympics - in the end it is a great three weeks and a big party.'
While the bulk of consumer-facing Olympic campaigns are yet to launch, many official partners have focused their efforts behind the scenes, on staff engagement. The Games organisers have also been active in activity to assist partners. 'London 2012 and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hold regular sponsor meetings to encourage them to work together. It also helps raise issues they wouldn't want to in a one-to-one meeting with the rights-holder,' says Pippa Collett, managing director of Sponsorship Consulting.
Last month, fellow sponsors rallied to promote the Olympic association of technology company and 2012 second-tier partner Cisco. In attendance, and carrying out experiential activity, were Cadbury, BMW, Samsung and Adidas.
'The event brought 2012 to life for our staff members and allowed us to work with Olympic partners,' explains Ian Symes, marketing director at Cisco. 'It impresses me how much partnering goes on between sponsors. One plus one can equal three in collaborative business. We are also hosting "Chairman's Clubs", where chief executives can talk about their experiences and see how they can work with other sponsors.'
Cisco has already extended its relationships with 2012 sponsors beyond the realm of the Games. It now jointly backs the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with fellow 2012 partner BT. 'We work on 2012 together and see how we can also do so on other opportunities,' adds Symes.
However, with so many brands holding 'Official Olympic Partner' status at both global and national level, achieving standout - not to mention seeing off ambush marketing campaigns - will be a major challenge over the next 18 months. While there are still opportunities to become officially associated with London 2012, many industry experts believe brands will now focus their attention on national governing bodies (NGBs) as a cost-effective way of gaining access to the Games.
Siemens UK, for example, has partnered British Rowing as the sport's official 'High Performance Partner'. While the brand has no official Olympic association, it will benefit from its partnership with a sport in which Team GB has previously enjoyed significant Olympic success.
Some sports, such as cycling, have received increased government funding in recent years, but others have suffered cuts and will welcome brand partnerships in the build-up to 2012. Furthermore, partnering with an NGB may appeal to brands targeting specific groups more than the broader draw of the Games.
EDF is an official Tier One partner to London 2012, but British Gas has taken a different route by sponsoring British Swimming to the tune of £15m. This means it supports stars such as double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, as well as investing in grass-roots initiatives, such as offering customers the chance to take a friend and up to two children for three free swimming sessions.
For many fans, athletics lies at the heart of the Olympics. Andy Westlake, managing partner at Fast Track, notes how athletics events in general are beginning to attract greater interest and says they will continue to do so in the run-up to London 2012. He points to the UK Schools Games (which received seven days of TV coverage this year), the IAAF's Diamond League and the Paralympic World Cup as three examples of the sport gaining increased exposure and interest in the UK. This bodes well for brands such as Aviva and McCain, which are closely linked to athletics in the UK, but not official Olympic partners.
Another option for brands is to sponsor individual athletes. Under IOC rules, athletes are not allowed to appear in ads in the period immediately preceding the Games or during the event. Yet, the benefits of an association with an Olympic star can be as beneficial as a link to the Games itself. Last month, the world's most marketable athlete, sprinter Usain Bolt, extended his tie-up with sportswear brand Puma for a period to include the 2012 Olympics. The deal is worth a reported £10m over the next three years - a fraction of the sums paid by some IOC and London 2012 partners.
As a rule of thumb, sponsorship experts recommend that every £1 spent on securing an Olympic sponsorship should be matched in promoting the association.
With less than two years to go until the London 2012 opening ceremony, brands know that the hard work begins now - not only to stand out from other Olympic partners, but also brands associated with individual sports, NGBs and athletes. And last, but by no means least, ambush marketers.
LOOK OUT FOR AMBUSHES
The IOC and LOCOG take an extremely dim view of ambush marketing and pursue a hard line against anyone infringing their copyrights or the rights of their Official Partners. This aggressive stance of course helps the Official Sponsors sleep easier at night, having already invested vast sums of money for rights before they even open their wallets to activate their deals. Despite such a Draconian approach, there have been some exceptions. One particularly notable example occurred during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Nike - which is not an official partner - ran ads featuring Team GB track star Kelly Sotherton during the Games. The ads showed the heptathlete undergoing a lie-detector test in which she swore she would win Olympic Gold. According to Nike, it had been granted a waiver by the IOC to run the ad.