How Olympic opening ceremonies can make or break a country's brand

* 3 min read

When it comes to Olympic opening ceremonies, Beijing 2008’s spectacular changed the game entirely. The performance was a real masterstroke; the product of months of planning and costing £65m, China successfully broadcast its creativity and modernity to the world.

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When we took the baton in 2012, Danny Boyle’s slightly off the wall approach could have fallen flat. Fortunately though, it went down a treat –because it didn’t just copy Beijing, it fully embraced Great Britain in all its eccentricity. The same principles ring true for brands. Originality and staying true to oneself are always more effective than imitation.

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The best opening ceremonies will always hinge on an expression of national identity. Rio 2016’s opening ceremony is a case in point, which in one if its most memorable moments gave us two cultural references for the price of one. It wasn’t enough for Brazilian supermodel Gisele to simply make an appearance, she had to walk out to something special, and what better than bossa nova classic The Girl from Ipanema? We employed a similar trick in London 2012 by bringing two national treasures together – 007 and the Queen – and throwing them both out of a plane.

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Of course, there is something to be said for a more nuanced approach. The real success comes when a country manages to weave in cultural references alongside broader Olympic ideals like international unity. That’s when a performance has real staying power. The challenge for a host country’s opening ceremony is to fit so much into one single performance – just as a brand must weave the various different facets of its organisation into one single identity, and different expressions of that identity. Most brands present themselves across a range of channels, from billboards to packaging to televised ad spots. And as recent revamps like Coca-Cola’s new ‘One Brand’ strategy show, consistency is paramount.

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It’s easy for a brand’s core message to get diluted when it gets stretched across various different placements. Host cities face a similar challenge when working to create a performance that ticks all the boxes: references to the national culture, the founding principles of The Olympics Games and something of theatrical worth.

Rio’s opening ceremony, although a more stripped-back affair, worked because it had meaning. Take the inclusion of Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, who replaced ailing footballing legend Pele to light the Olympic Cauldron. De Lima, who was attacked while running the marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, made for a perfect choice to light the iconic flame. After the attack de Lima still managed to place third, despite the intrusion of the drunken spectator, and was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship for his performance. Giving de Lima pride of place in the ceremony was a thoughtful touch that combined national pride with the ideas at the heart of the Olympics.

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More importantly though, Rio 2016 launched with an environmental message, using the opening ceremony to put green issues on centre stage. It’s a problem that directly affects Brazil – as the BBC commentary made clear, the country itself is 60 per cent forest. But solving climate change is an international responsibility and like The Olympic Games, one that requires each and every country to interact. Rio 2016 has faced no shortage of obstacles, but if it manages to raise awareness of this one issue its opening ceremony may well stand the test of time.

Brands may not be able to deliver a message this lofty, but they do have the opportunity to craft something special. As long as they do something original and embrace what sets them apart, they will stand out from the crowd.