A sporting chance: How the NZOC fired up our love of the Olympics

The latest episode of the Face 2 Face podcast explores how the New Zealand Olympic Committee got Kiwis thinking about quadrennial events every single day. Here Spencer Bailey looks at how a new brand platform started this success.

Spencer Bailey, head of New Zealand, Facebook

For a fortnight every four years Kiwis are glued to their TV screens until the wee small hours, having become experts in relatively obscure sports which, just a few hours earlier, they were probably completely unaware of.

That’s the magic of the Olympic Games.

New Zealand has an almost unique passion for them – it speaks to something in our psyche. At the Rio 2016 Games, the New Zealand Team had the highest social media engagement of any team in the world. We also came third in the per capita medal tally.

But for the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) the challenge comes in keeping those fires burning for a four-year cycle, and stoking interest in New Zealand’s participation in other events like the Pacific Games, Commonwealth Games and the Winter Olympics.

Traditionally it didn’t happen, and they would create campaigns ahead of major events. But times have changed and with so many things competing for people’s time and attention, it’s more vital than ever to stay top of people’s minds.

So when NZOC commercial director Sharon Van Gulik came into that position after the 2016 Games she was determined to create a way to keep these athletes, most of whom are talented amateurs, front and centre.

When it comes to a national property like this, small details matter, so the pressure was on to get it right.

She put a tender out to the market for ideas from creative agencies, and found a perfect match with Saatchi & Saatchi, who presented the idea of #EarntheFern.

This simple hashtag encapsulated everything the Olympics and sport in general means to New Zealand and the thousands of hours of dedication which goes into competitors earning the right to wear the Silver Fern emblem as they go out to compete for their country.

Of course, a hashtag does not a brand platform make, and many, many other touchpoints were needed to create a brand people could get behind. For chief creative officer Toby Talbot and his team, this meant everything from redesigning uniforms and reimagining the NZ Olympic emblem, to a rebrand of the New Zealand Team.

They realised there were fanatical pockets of support for these athletes, but the challenge came in unifying snowboard enthusiasts with equestrian fans, engaging the rugby community and creating support for the individual athletes who rarely get to compete in their home nation.

To do this they created content showcasing the athletes. Social media became a prime channel to highlight these stories, allowing fans to find them and interact, and get to know the people behind the performances and what drives them on.

The first major tests for the brand platform were the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018, with the Saatchi’s team at times having to battle the elements to capture some remarkable stories and creating campaigns which built on the #EarntheFern proposition.

There’s another reason why it matters to the NZOC to have Kiwis thinking about and following these athletes’ journeys. It comes down to the fact they need to raise every single cent needed to send them to compete in these events. That means appealing to sponsors.

And has it worked? Well with just under a year to go until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Van Gulik says they have nearly reached their sponsorship targets, way ahead of where they have ever been before.

She gives a large amount of credit to the always-on approach and extra engagement and awareness the #EarntheFern platform has created for that feat.

Indeed it’s given sponsors a new way to interact with fans and help showcase their partnership with the NZOC, and allowing athletes to connect with new fan bases and build their presence and support ahead of the Games.

By taking a proactive approach to the problem, the NZOC has raised awareness and become top of mind for sports in the country, creating a halo effect for hundreds of athletes vying for a spot in Tokyo, and other events.

Now new communities are rallying behind these athletes and following their preparations, so when it comes to those stressful early mornings in front of the TV they feel even more connected and proud of their performances.

It’s the real spirit of the Olympics, bringing a nation together and creating a sense of pride. 

Hear Sharon Van Gulik and Toby Talbot explain how they brought this new platform to life and where it can go next in the new episode of Facebook’s Face 2 Face podcast here.

This story is part of a content partnership between Facebook and StopPress.

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