Canada’s Sports Marketing Misstep

The most general principal of sports marketing on the team side is finding a way to promote and sell your brand without being dependent on winning, since the on-field results are outside of your control. It seems like along those lines, Canada may have made a mistake with their “Own the Podium” program. I had this thought while reading a recent ESPN.com article about Canada conceding the Olympic medal race.

To provide a quick background, the “Own the Podium” program was an effort by Canada to commit more money to their Olympic athletes that have the best chance of winning medals, with the overall goal of taking home the most medals of any competing nation. Canada currently sits in 5th place with just ten medals, 15 behind current leader, the United States. Now I’m not saying they shouldn’t have committed the money towards their athletes to help them try and succeed in their respective sports. I applaud their efforts to provide extra support to their athletes leading up to and during their host Olympics. However, I think they mis-branded their efforts, and because they are going to fall short in the overall medal count, the program now appears to have failed.

By publicly branding their efforts to “Own the Podium” with a goal of winning the most medals of any country, they created a perception that anything less than perfection would be failure. Canada finished third in the medal count four years ago, and before that, they never finished higher than fourth, so this was quite a goal to set. They could have made the same financial commitment to their athletes with a goal of being in the top 3 (which fits with the general theme of the top 3 athletes receiving medals), and this still would have been a huge (and still achievable) accomplishment. They also could have branded their program with something more related to being the host country than with specific results, something like “The Pride of Canada”. This focuses the rallying cry around supporting the local athletes, not just on their results. By conceding that they will not reach their goal, Canadian athletes and fans alike could easily look back to the 2010 Vancouver Games and think about their nation’s failure instead of pride in their country for hosting the Games and in their athletes for their efforts. Not only that, by making this public concession now, they’ve potentially overshadowed any additional medals that Canadian athletes win during the remainder of the Games.

Of course, the other side of this would be if they did achieve their goal, the Canadian Olympic Committee would look absolutely brilliant. In general, tying any branding or marketing platform to the on-field results is a high risk/high reward proposition, and when you’re dealing with a global stage like the Olympics, I don’t think it was worth the risk.