The blazing Olympic torch, paraded through London yesterday for only the third time in the history of the games, is an unmistakeable symbol of the world's oldest sporting competition. But over the course of the past century, the Olympics have become subtly associated with another globally recognised icon: the red-and-white branding of the Coca-Cola Company.
This year's competition in Beijing marks the 80th anniversary of the American company's involvement with the Olympics, which began with a small Coke kiosk at the Amsterdam Games in 1928, but has grown into a worldwide marketing and advertising campaign. The company is the longest continuous corporate partner in the history of the Olympics, with a vast archive of old marketing material and memorabilia, some of which is now highly collectable.
"The optimism and spirit of hope of the games matches the refreshment of our brand exactly," says Ted Ryan, archives collection manager for Coca-Cola. "Even as an archivist you can see that the Olympics and Coke have always fitted with each other: we're a global company, and the games have been a place where we've always had a home."
Coca-Cola has become synonymous with other worldwide sporting competitions – the company has sponsored the Fifa World Cup since 1978 – and it's now difficult to imagine a time when it wasn't a global brand. But this success was partly brought about by the company's shrewd decision to stick with the Olympics throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, on the assumption that the best way to market itself globally would be to sponsor a global competition. The strategy continues.
Ted Ryan: This 24-sheet poster at the entrance to the games was originally a Norman Rockwell painting. Coke has always hired the best artists to produce its advertising. Rockwell did six paintings for the company, and that board was one of the first. The sales kiosk was set up outside the venue. A lot of people had never tasted Coca-Cola in 1928, and we weren’t even in some of the markets, so part of this was about allowing people from other countries to sample a new product. It was staffed by six waiters in Coke uniforms who distributed drinks.
LOS ANGELES, 1928
TR: We'd been established in Los Angeles for several decades, so we didn't need to get people to sample the product, we were just highlighting the Olympic ideal. These are beautiful pieces: the cardboard "record-keeper wheel" was intended for fans attending the games so that they could tell what the best time for each event was, and they're now highly collectable. We also made big, beautiful and bright cardboard cut-outs (first image) to be used in window displays in grocery stores
TR: Coke was becoming a force by 1948, but the London Olympics were an odd one because they followed so closely on the heels of the war. Coke had only just been reintroduced to the civilian population in Britain – during the war it was rationed because of the sugar. At the games, our marketing was a lot like Amsterdam: kiosks outside the venues providing product to spectators and participants.There’s no marketing material from those Olympics: this poster is a retrospective piece we produced for the Atlanta Games in 1996.
LOS ANGELES, 1984
TR: The 1984 games were the first ones where marketing had become a big part of the competition. That year’s Olympic mascot, Sam the Eagle, is shown here on a pieceof Japanese art. So Coke’s marketing was being tailored for other cultures. The Olympics had become a worldwide marketing phenomenon, and the LA games were where it all came together.
TR: The text reads: “An Olympic Gold Medal”. This was done for the South Korean games, and highlights the fact that the company has used the Olympics to advertise more than simply Coke. “Kin” was a local lemon-and-lime drink which Coca-Cola produced for South Korea and a few other Asian countries, where Fanta (a Coca-Cola brand) was also popular.
TR: The Barcelona games were the first ones where we sponsored the Olympic torch relay: since then, we’ve sponsored another six. Nowadays we usually try to tie in an international component, where consumers can have the opportunity to be a torch-bearer.So even if someone lives in Peru, they could win the chance to carry the torch in Peru or in the host country.
TR: We did so much at Atlanta that I don’t know if you could really call it advertising. It’s our headquarter city, so the marketing was everywhere. We even built a place for people to refresh and relax called Coca-Cola Olympic City. Because the world was coming to our home town, we decided to invite people from each country to design their own versions of our classic contour bottle, billing it “Folk-art, Coke art”. Local artists submitted their concepts, and the winning idea was commissioned by the local Coca-Cola office.They became so popular during the games, that we actually set up a European and then a worldwide tour, and a few of the best ones are still on display here at the Coke HQ in Atlanta.
Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay, which came to London yesterday, saw the video wall at Piccadilly Circus adorned with Coke branding, and archive footage from previous Olympic Games.TR: This truck calendar has only just come into our archives, after it was distributed in China last year.