Greece’s brand Olympic opportunity proved solid

According to Josh McCall’s article publihed on PR Week, Greece’s brand has gained a lot from her Olympic dialogue with the rest of the world:

Something amazing happened on August 13, when, at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics, Athens 2004 president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki welcomed the world to the Greek capital, declaring to a live audience of 72,000 and a TV audience estimated at 4 billion, “Greece is going to fire the world’s imagination.”

Against the odds, it did.

Suddenly, the intense skepticism that had built up in the media for months – about Athens’ preparedness, security, etc. – transformed into a sense that one of the most anticipated and doubted Olympic spectacles in history might just turn out to be one of the best.

Perceptions were shifted dramatically. It was as if the world had agreed that the moral of the 2004 Athens Olympic story would not be the familiar caution coined by 6th century BC Greek fable writer Aesop – “Look before you leap” – but rather his lesser-known enjoinder: “The greater the risk, the greater the honor” (an ancient version of Nike’s “Just do it”?).

Or perhaps: “He laughs best who laughs last.”

Another bout of skepticism quickly ensued over attendance and TV viewership – but once again the Olympics appear to have met, even exceeded, expectations. Early coverage focused on empty arena seats, raising questions about whether TV viewers would in turn tune out.

As of press time, Athens 2004 was close to its sales target of 3.4 million tickets. Attendance was lower than in the last (pre-recession, pre-9/11) Summer Games, but comparable to that of Barcelona in 1992 (3 million) and Seoul in 1988 (3.3 million).

Even more important, TV viewership was up 18% compared to Sydney, according to NBC. That increase is striking. Since 2000, the challenges to securing a mass TV audience have become far more onerous, but Athens delivered an even more massive mind share.

Rebranding Greece

One can still argue that the Olympics continue to be among the most prominent platforms for branding on the planet. Despite the challenges and expense of organizing, hosting, securing, and sponsoring the Olympics in an increasingly complex, post-9/11 world, the Games remain a powerful way for brands to make broad connections with deep impact.

Arguably, the brand that had the most at stake in this summer’s Olympics was the country of Greece itself. Hosting the Olympics can help countries boost tourism, attract investment, and create new infrastructure. With 11 million people, Greece is the smallest country to host the Games since Finland in 1952. Since 2000, its economy has expanded by 4% annually, with the Olympics contributing an estimated quarter of that total.

Perhaps the most valuable and enduring benefit for Greece, however, is the opportunity the Olympics provided to influence perceptions and redress negative stereotypes. Hosting the Games gave Greece a priceless, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “re-brand” itself on a world stage.

When construction delays began to cause concerns about Athens’ readiness as far back as 2000, it looked as if the old stereotype of Greece as a nation of friendly procrastinators might be reinforced. Particularly following 9/11 and the scrutiny on Athens as the Summer Games’ first host following the attacks, the skepticism escalated, reaching a fever pitch in the months before the opening.

(Indeed, a Turnkey Sports Poll of 400 senior-level sports-industry executives in the US conducted in July found the biggest perceived threats to a successful summer Olympics in Athens were terrorism [55.7%] and unfinished facilities [24%], far outpacing concerns about scandals relating to performance-enhancing drugs [3.6%].)

The opening ceremonies (which were produced by our firm) defied stereotypes and broadcasted a positive image of Greece to a global TV audience, merging pride in the country’s ancient past with a new image of its contemporary place in the world. According to NBC, which holds US broadcast rights, they were the most-watched non-US opening ceremonies, with a 14.6 rating/27 household share. It is no exaggeration to say that the ceremonies – which in 2000 were the most-watched event during the entire two-week Sydney Games – are the biggest three-hour ad a country could have.