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Some companies strike marketing gold at Olympics, while others fail to get in the game

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - The pressure to win during the 2014 Sochi Olympics is nearly as intense for marketers as it is for the athletes themselves.

Just like there are medals handed out during the Games, there are winners and losers in advertising.

It's a huge stage for marketers. Companies pay as much as $100 million for exclusive rights to sponsor Olympic teams, while others shell out tens of thousands hoping to score gold by backing individual athletes. The catch? Advertisers' fates are often tied to external factors.

There were a number of distractions this year due to controversy over security, gay rights laws and Olympic preparedness in Sochi. But fortunately for many U.S. sponsors, those things were overshadowed by the athletic prowess of nation's Olympic athletes: The U.S. has won more medals than any country so far — good news for advertisers since experts say being associated with a medal winner is the easiest way to capture the goodwill created by the Olympics.

Still, the best advertisers find ways to connect even when their athletes underperform. The advertising winners this year managed to both harness the feel-good nature of the Olympics and convey a message about their products. The losers, meanwhile, failed to make memorable ads or worse, made an unfavourable brand impression to the millions of people watching.

"Marketers have to be ready to capitalize on a good performance, but you still have to plan for a mediocre showing," from sponsored athletes said Tim Calkins, marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Business in Northwestern. "Marketers need to find a way to make the whole effort successful."

MEDAL WINNERS

— Procter & Gamble, a longtime Olympic sponsor, won points early with its feel-good ad "Pick Them Back Up." The spot is a part of its popular "Thank You Mom" campaign that shows moms supporting young athletes when they fall down.

Since the consumer products company debuted the ad online before the Olympics began, the spot has been viewed 18 million times on YouTube. And Ace Metrix, which measures the effectiveness of ads, has ranked it the most effective Olympic ad.

"They won by getting out early," said Ammiel Kamon, senior vice-president of products and marketing of Kontera, which monitors how much online conversation brands generate.

— Visa, another top Olympic sponsor, focused on responding to many events real time on social media. It helps that the payments company sponsored 37 Olympians and Paralympians, including gold medallists ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White and skier David Wise.

Visa was able to respond quickly on Facebook when its athletes won gold medals, and that paid off. A photo mosaic tribute to Davis and White has received 54,000 likes and nearly 3,000 shares. Another for Wise received 39,000 likes and more than 1,600 shares.

"What they've been posting on Facebook has been well timed and gained traction," said Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst of social media at research firm eMarketer.

GOING HOME WITHOUT THE GOLD

— Unpredictability is what the Olympics are all about. That can work in a brand's favour if an underdog sponsored athlete suddenly wins gold. But there's another side to this, as Under Armour found out.

The athletic wear company spent years developing a high-tech suit for the U.S. speedskating team, which was heavily favoured coming into competition. But then the team failed to medal, and worse, some blamed the Under Armour suit.

It is not clear the suit had anything to do with the team's performance and some experts say the flap likely won't hurt domestic sales of its core products like shoes and T-shirts. But it was a blow to the brand because it came in front of a global audience right at the time when Under Armour is seeking to expand internationally. And experts say it put the company on the defensive instead of garnering positive Olympic goodwill.

"It was an opportunity for them to shine on the Olympic stage and they fell," said branding expert Laura Ries.

Under Armour didn't respond to a request for comment.

— McDonald's was limping out of the gate from the start.

Before the Games began, the burger chain tried to introduce a seemingly innocuous hashtag on Twitter, CheerstoSochi. Getting a hashtag to go viral is a marketers' ultimate goal, since it is basically free publicity.

But in this case, the hashtag was picked up by activists in tweets condemning the Russian gay rights limitations and assailing McDonald's for not speaking out forcibly against it. Next, none of its three sponsored athletes, including speedskater favourite Shani Davis, managed to get a medal.

The company's TV spots also failed to impress. One ad that shows Olympic champions biting their medals and comparing that to people biting Chicken McNuggets didn't resonate with consumers: Ace Metrix said it scored on the low end of their effectiveness scale.

McDonald's said it supports its athletes and that thousands of fans sent positive "cheers" to athletes via its "Cheers to Sochi" campaign.

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