Olympic Gold Interview: GE Grows Its Global Brand as London 2012 Olympics Sponsor

Brian Pittman’s exclusive interview with GE Olympic Sponsorship President Peter Foss

“Any company must carefully align sponsorship opportunities with its corporate values—and recognize it’s all about growth at the end of the day,” says Peter N. Foss, President, Olympic Sponsorship and Corporate Sales at GE. “If you can’t find a link to driving company profits—don’t do it!” warns Foss, who in addition to coordinating GE’s global Olympic Sponsorship also manages the company’s Sales Force Effectiveness program.

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“In our case, GE’s values are all about integrity and so are those of the Olympics,” he explains. What’s more, the company has driven hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects and sales abroad through its Olympic partnerships, while helping to reinvent GE as a truly global brand. “Before the Beijing Olympics,” Foss illustrates, “the Chinese thought GE was GM and that we were in the car business.”

Not only has GE’s brand awareness in China skyrocketed since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but GE has also ramped up its Olympic sponsorship initiatives—and the London Summer Olympic Games are no exception. Here, Foss shares key metrics underscoring GE’s Olympic sponsorship ROI, what he’s most looking forward to in the London Games and his quick tips for businesses seeking greater visibility via marketing sponsorships of any size or type:

Why did GE decide to sponsor the Games?

GE’s partnership with the Olympic Games aligns with our global growth strategy by opening doors to new sales and marketing opportunities in all of the host countries. GE is uniquely suited to meet the infrastructure needs required to stage the world’s largest sporting event, as well as the healthcare needs to provide quality care to the athletes. Our continued investment in the Olympic Games is part of our commitment to deliver world-class infrastructure and healthcare solutions that leave a sustainable legacy to future generations.
We are proud to be associated with the Olympic Games, as the values of this global, trusted brand match GE’s. Our sponsorship provides funding for athletes that would otherwise not be able to participate in the Olympic Games. We are very proud of that.

When did GE’s sponsorship begin and what were the goals?

We announced our sponsorship in 2003, and it was at same time NBC was bidding for 2010 and 12 broadcast rights. As part of that, we went in as GE to put in a bid to be a TOP (The Olympic Partner) Program Sponsor. This started with the 2006 Olympics in Torino and then in Beijing, Vancouver and London. Those were the four in our first package.

The thinking was the company was becoming more global. When I started, 95% of sales were in U.S., but it was probably 60% ten years ago. There were big areas of potential growth outside of the U.S.—but we just weren’t known there. The biggest interest was in Beijing, because China was a big market for GE. We were doing close to $5 billion a year there. They thought GE was GM and that we were in the car business. We saw Olympics as a brand that we could saddle up and ride in with.

It was a great way to build relationships with key individuals in China as they built up the Olympics and announced they were spending $50 billion on it—double what was normal. Beyond that, other infrastructure projects were more like $200 billion—including transportation, power, water, lighting and all the things we do as a big infrastructure company.

We realized the head of the Olympic organizing committee in China was Liu Qi, and that party secretaries and mayors served on committees, as well. If we built a strong relationship with them, we could demonstrate our capability and ability to be a good partner on infrastructure projects. They were going to start at a given time and we needed to deliver.

That gave us a great opportunity. We got to know them and ultimately built great relationships with them. GE’s general awareness there prior to the Olympics was less than 10%. After the games, it was 50%. That was good for us. We also did a lot of advertising in the country, which helped.

Next came the announcement that the Summer Olympics were to be held in Rio. That was another great opportunity for us as an infrastructure company to grow into a thriving economy. We are now signed up through 2020. So overall, it has turned into a very nice opportunity to build stronger relationships in areas of the world that are important to us.

Can you touch upon what GE provides the Olympics?

Our Olympic Green program in Beijing and also in London includes providing more energy efficient sport lighting, electrical infrastructure and more. We also built health clinics for athletes with diagnostic imaging equipment. So, it runs the gamut of all of our product lines. The IOC actually said “GE stands for ‘Generally Everything.’”

We were their first infrastructure sponsor as opposed to consumer companies like Samsung or Visa. Those companies’ interests were a year out from the games being held—but we are there on the ground to help with infrastructure the moment the host city is announced.  We immediately put four teams on the ground: our revenue team (sales), our PR team, our marketing team, and our hospitality team.

How do the Olympic values align with GE’s?

From a brand value perspective, we have a code of ethics in the company and the spirit of the letter is that integrity comes first of all. The Olympics values are all about striving for truth, integrity, spirit, team building and sportsmanship. There is nothing there that doesn’t align with our own values. Integrity is number one for us. One strike and you’re out.

How have you leveraged the power of the Olympic rings to enhance GE’s brand?

We have Brand Tracker studies that show our brand awareness grew by 1/3 from 2005 to 2010. We also look at things like unaided awareness around specific campaigns. For example, we ran ads and launched initiatives tied to healthcare around the Vancouver games—and awareness of GE as related to healthcare certainly grew.

We integrated efforts across traditional media, digital and PR to drive results. As a result, we saw significant impact across key brand measures in China (2008) and Canada (2010). Specifically:

• In China, we saw a +31% rise in favorability.
• In Canada, we saw a +92% rise in favorability.

What has been the commercial impact of GE’s involvement in the Olympics—any hard metrics?

Well, we placed GE technology in all competition and non-competition venues in Beijing, Vancouver and London. GE’s involvement with the Olympics helped us define commercial process to more effectively address large-scale projects. Specifically, we created a centralized team to respond to all Olympic-related infrastructure opportunities and to work across GE’s diverse lines of businesses.

In Beijing, we saw 400 infrastructure projects. Notable projects included a wind farm outside of Beijing to provide renewable power for the games, a rain water capture system for “Bird Nest” stadium (main stadium), and a lighting and electrical distribution for multiple stadiums and arenas.

In Vancouver, we saw 120 infrastructure projects. Notable projects included a range of diagnostic imaging equipment for two Polyclinics (hospitals for athletes and Olympic officials), CT, MR, X-Ray, Ultrasound, ECG and Healthcare IT, a Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) in Whistler (an 18-wheel trailer that served as full-functioning trauma center and operating room) and more.

In London, we have 120 infrastructure projects.

Notable projects include a full range of diagnostic imaging equipment for Polyclinic (hospitals for athletes and Olympic officials), three Jenbacher CHP engines installed in the Olympic Park energy center, 120 EV charging stations installed to support London 2012 electric vehicle fleet, GE lighting technology across a number of the Olympic venues (Olympic Main Stadium, Aquatics, Basketball, Field-Hockey, etc.), and a partnership to re-lamp Tower Bridge with energy efficient LED technology. This resulted in a 45% energy savings over current street lighting applications. Beyond that, legacy projects include GE donating £4.8m of advanced healthcare equipment to Homerton Hospital—including fetal monitors, incubators and magnetic resonance scanners, to Homerton University Hospital in Hackney, East London.

Also important was that we were able to showcase GE’s contributions to customers from around the world. For example:

• In Beijing, we hosted over 2,500 customers.
• In Vancouver, we hosted over 1,000 customers
• In London, we will host approximately 1,300 customers

You also oversee corporate sales—how has the Olympics sponsorship contributed to sales force effectiveness?

One way to answer that is to look at our “Decathlon Challenge,” which was an internal program to help drive sales with our team and distributors. It involved a series of training contests tied to sales. Research showed that this program helped drive $190 million in revenue growth in 2007 and 2008).

What’s your advice to other businesses regarding picking big events or even smaller community events to sponsor?

I think when you consider a sponsorship, you have say, “What is my strategy for growth and how does this help me?” Any decision should be based on how such an opportunity helps your company grow revenues. If you can’t find a clear linkage—then don’t do it!

For us, we could measure things like: 1. Revenue (we were selling goods that helped build venues), 2. brand awareness, and 3. client and prospect relationships. All of those fit into our strategic objectives.

If you are a consumer company like Coke, it’s different. You get involved with it just for the exposure and brand building. They are 80% non-U.S. in terms of global revenues. And their last three CEOs were all international. Again, you must align with your company values—and recognize that it’s all about growth at the end of the day.

We get two to three calls a week for things that don’t fit. I don’t get it. We don’t do it if it’s not a fit. The Olympics were our first global sponsorship—and we’re a 140-year company! So, be careful.

I don’t understand things like putting your name on a stadium. What does that do for you? If you are Citibank naming a baseball field, maybe that helps because you’re reaching consumers. But if we put our name on a stadium, they wont’ be buying a jet engine tomorrow. The consumer piece at GE is less than four percent of our business-and it’s all about light bulbs and appliances. It’s small, so we wouldn’t pursue a sponsorship like that.  

Where are you getting the most online and media buzz as related to GE’s sponsorship of the Olympics?

A few weeks ago, we launched a “Healthy Share” Facebook application as part of our movement to integrate health in a consumer way. This is part of our “Healthy Imagination” program. The focus is fitness and using the games to inspire people to improve their health based on athletes’ experiences. As part of this program, we developed challenges people can take to be like the athletes. For example, soccer player Alex Morgan provided a program where you can stretch and do things he does in his training. This program has been generating a lot of media buzz. We did the activation at Rockefeller Center, where Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders hosted a class to take her challenge.

What are you most looking forward to during the Summer Olympics in London?

The Summer Olympics offer so much to see and do. I try not to miss swimming, for starters. It has become so exciting, from seeing Mark Spitz to now, Phelps … They are extraordinary. That will be the hottest ticket in town. I enjoy that. Watching Usain Bolt run is also always cool. Track and field is never boring. Beach volleyball is fun, like a party. And it will be held at a neat place, in the horse parade area. I will even go watch table tennis one day.

What are your thoughts about golf being back in the Olympics, starting with Rio?

I’m very excited about that—golf is important to me. I’m not good enough to compete. I play on weekends. I live in Charlotte and there is good golf here. I play on Saturday and Sunday mornings whenever I can.

We are a marketing partner of the PGA tour and our player just won the U.S. Open (Webb Simpson). He’s involved in an extension of our health initiatives. He was scanned by our DEXA machine that measures body composition to see which side has more muscle development. He had that done earlier in the fall.

How is golf like business?

I have played golf since I was eight years old. I am a big proponent of golf and believe in getting youth involved in it. It’s a lifelong sport and teaches great core values. It builds character and emphasizes integrity and honesty. Golf is a game where there are a lot of judgment calls you have to make. Nobody is standing there telling you what to do and how to do it every step of the game. Being a student of the rules of golf helps you in business and life, I think. What you learn about sportsmanship, honesty and judgment carries through your life.

Final parting words about the value of GE’s Olympic sponsorship?

The biggest pieces I take away from this are that we were a “stodgy old industrial company” that never sponsored anything. We looked at it as way to create revenue—but learned it helps brand building. Also important are the legacy gifts we leave in Olympic cities. Those things make me feel the best about our Olympics involvement. We are proud of not only being a great company, but also a good one.


Brian Pittman is a partner at CommPRO.biz, where he focuses on editorial and content while helping to build the community.