Client YouGovPolimetrix featured in Ad Age story about sneaker brands at the Olympics

Speedo, Puma Run Circles Around Nike

Big Spender Overshadowed by Smaller Rivals at Olympics

CHICAGO ( -- Imagine if the U.S. had been upstaged in the medal count by Moldova at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. An equivalent scenario played out on the marketing side.

Nike and Adidas carpet-bombed the games with endorser-athletes and high-profile sponsorship deals, but smaller competitors such as Speedo and Puma achieved greater surges in awareness and buzz by backing a smaller group of athletes who just happened to dominate the games and much of the conversation surrounding them.

"The inherent challenge for the little guys at a big event like the Olympics is that you need to swing for the fences, like you're putting all your money in a small-cap stock," said Paul Swangard, director the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "It's a David vs. Goliath strategy, but it seems to have worked this year."

Indeed, Speedo scored the games' biggest coup, thanks to the record-breaking feats of swimmer Michael Phelps, whose eight gold medals dominated coverage of the games. The hero of two of Mr. Phelps' relay victories was a Nike-endorsing swimmer, Jason Lezak, who was wearing a Speedo LZR racer suit with Nike's blessing.

That success -- part of a haul that saw Speedo-suited swimmers win nearly 90% of the swimming medals at the games -- led to a 128% boost in global online chatter about the brand, according to a study conducted by Zeta Interactive.

Out of water
"The biggest challenge for Nike is that they weren't a player at all in swimming, and, because of Phelps, swimming was the story. ... Just about everybody else was left out of that," said Wally Hayward," CEO of Relay Worldwide, a Publicis-owned sports-marketing agency.

Off the field, official sponsors fared better. A study by YouGovPolimetrix, which interviewed 5,000 U.S. consumers each day of the Olympics, found that people tended to hear more about the top-level International Olympic Committee sponsors during the games and that the bulk of what they heard was positive. The biggest payoffs, however, went to lesser-known names such as Lenovo and Omega, which were not previously as well-known to U.S. consumers. "These relatively obscure companies are really the big winners," said Ted Marzilli, general manger of YouGovPolimetrix's brand group.

Of the companies that entered the games as household names, the data showed that Visa posted the biggest gains, particularly during the first week of competition, as its ads featuring Morgan Freeman's voice and scenes of past Olympics moments seemed to resonate. McDonald's, on the other hand, was relatively flat. "They're pretty ubiquitous to begin with, and they have a bit of a credibility gap when it comes to marketing in sports as a healthy-lifestyle brand," he said.

Nike and Adidas figured to loom larger once the games climbed out of the pool and onto the track, but Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt -- a Puma endorser -- shattered those plans by setting world records in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, becoming the first athlete to do so since Nike's Carl Lewis in 1984.

That Mr. Bolt set the record in the 100 meters despite celebrating during the last 10 meters of his run only added to the intrigue surrounding him. The top track hopes for Nike and Adidas -- sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay and hurdler Liu Xiang -- suffered letdowns and injuries. Mr. Bolt's success sent interest in Puma soaring, as online chatter about the brand soared 64% during the games. Nike and Adidas saw relatively modest surges of 18% and 17% apiece, despite dramatically outspending Speedo and Puma and sending a small army of high-profile athletes to Beijing to help hawk their wares.

While the results of the events can provide a boost to sales in their immediate aftermath, the official status of Nike (via the many Olympic teams it sponsors) and Adidas likely helped both marketers make sizable gains in the crucial Chinese market in the months leading up to the games, so their efforts were hardly squandered.