By Andrew Willis
When Royal Bank of Canada (NYSE:RY) began planning the campaign that would anchor its involvement in the Vancouver Olympics, the institution faced a classic marketing conundrum.
Canadians didn't want to see a bank, or other corporate player, sully the games by using the event to shamelessly flog products. However, RBC and its shareholders were entirely justified in looking for some sort of return on a $110 million, multi-Games commitment to the Olympics. How did the bank square this circle?
Well, it helps to have history on your side. RBC's backing of amateur athletics and Olympic Games goes back to 1947. Along with six decades of financing, the institution has a long history of offering athletes full or part-time jobs: More than 50 Olympic participants are currently on the payroll. So RBC's marketing team went into the biggest project they've ever undertaken with a brand that was already linked to ruddy-cheeked winter sports.
But the real breakthrough, the move that set RBC apart in a crowded, competitive Olympic sponsorship landscape, was the decision to step up for an event that will finish when the opening ceremonies begin. The results are already in: Backing the torch relay has translated into a gold-medal performance for Canada's biggest bank.
To hear RBC chief brand officer Jim Little tell it now, this decision was stunningly simple. The bank, with its vast branch network, wanted a feel-good Olympic vibe that included customer contact in every community. Some help was needed to pay for the Bombardier-designed torch's winding, 45,000-kilometre trip through cities and towns, into schools, Legion halls, curling rinks and everywhere Canadians gather. Slapping an RBC logo on that journey just made sense.
But consider the timing for this sponsorship decision: Olympic marketing campaigns were being planned, and financed, during the worst financial meltdown this generation has experienced. Many bank executives were curled up under their desks, in a fetal position, when these sponsorship decisions were being weighed. Banks were cutting costs, left and right. Against that backdrop, RBC made a decision to hike its Olympic spend, beyond the original $110 million commitment.
For the past 101 days, the torch has travelled the country; it stopped in Abbotsford, B.C., yesterday in the final week of the marathon. In coming days, as Vancouver comes into view, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jann Arden, Michael Bublé and Walter Gretzky will carry the flame.
Several times each day, there are formal celebrations for torchbearers. At each gathering, there's an RBC booth, carried on a truck, on the edge of the crowd. As part of the torch relay, the bank offers to anyone who is interested a loan for eco-friendly home renovations that increase energy efficiency.
How successful has the torch campaign been? Services such as Nielsen track brand awareness, and its weekly data showed that until the beginning of 2009, RBC consistently ranked a distant fourth when it came to recognition among Olympic backers - McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) was way out in front, followed by Petro-Canada (PCZ) and Air Canada (AIDIF.PK). Then the torch touched down in Victoria, and began its cross-country trek.
By the first week of February, as the torch neared the end of trail, Nielsen found that RBC had vaulted into No. 1 spot among sponsors of the games.
The bank has built a huge list of potential clients from its home-reno loan program. Internal surveys show the far-flung branch staff feel a new sense of pride and involvement in their bank. And the torch has become a national icon, on par with canoes and the loonie. Mr. Little says: "The torch relay, and Royal Bank's entire involvement to date in the Vancouver Games, have exceeded every estimate of what we hoped to achieve."
And the Games haven't even started yet.