Sharing a vision: James Williams on Coca-Cola’s partnership with the Olympics

Ahead of his appearance at The Brand Conference, James Williams, Coca-Cola vice president of Olympic assets and marketing for Tokyo 2020, discusses the soft drinks giant’s longstanding relationship with sport’s showpiece occasion.

Sharing a vision: James Williams on Coca-Cola’s partnership with the Olympics

The Olympic Games is world sport’s biggest party. Not only can it offer a sponsor a worldwide audience of over 3.5 billion but its three core values - friendship, respect and excellence - are attractive qualities for any company to become synonymous with.

Coca-Cola has enjoyed a long and fruitful identification with the movement. The American soft drinks giant’s 89-year history with the winter and summer Olympics began when it travelled with Team USA to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. It was a move masterminded by Robert W Woodruff, the then president of Coca-Cola, as a means of spearheading the brand’s overseas expansion.

The Coca-Cola Company is now the world’s largest producer of beverage, with over 500 lines to its name, and with a brand value of US$73.1 billion, was placed third in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands of 2016 rankings. For what is now one of the biggest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) groups on the planet, its Olympic activities have changed considerably since that first outing back in the Netherlands almost nine decades ago.

One of the men responsible for ensuring that Coca-Cola continues its successful partnership is James Williams, vice president of Olympic assets and marketing for the Tokyo 2020 Games. The Briton - whose award-winning career has included spells in the alcohol and telecoms sectors as well as FMCG - began his own relationship with the Olympic Games at London 2012 when he ran Coke’s project team for the execution of the Olympic Torch Relay.

That project was received with great acclaim by organisers and fans alike, giving a suitably energising kick to the final weeks of build-up in the UK, and Williams was posted to Coke Brazil to lead the marketing and sponsorship for the Rio 2016 Games, which became one of the most talked-about and integrated activations for the event.

In his new role with Coca-Cola, Williams has followed the Games to Japan ahead of Tokyo 2020, the last Games in the company’s current sponsorship deal with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Ahead of SportsPro’s The Brand Conference at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London on 28th September, Williams discusses Coca-Cola’s sponsorship strategy in sport, preparations for Tokyo, and lessons from past activations, and gives a brand-focused reaction to the prospect of Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.


What's at the heart of a good sponsorship, in your opinion? How do you build a campaign strategy for an FMCG brand sponsoring sport?

The thing that is important from a brand’s point of view in terms of sport sponsorship is to understand the objectives of why you are doing the sponsorship. It sounds quite ironic because of course you have an objective, but most people don’t.

It should always come back to the fundamental question: what is the business reason why we are doing this?

It is one of the things that we are very good at doing here at Coke. We are very good at looking at looking at what the business legacy will be, especially when we are talking about Fifa World Cups and Olympic Games. This is, for me, where success lies.

Added to that is the partnership that you create, not only with the rights holders but the other brands that you work with. We are always looking to support the other brands around us as much as we can.

We always look to align ourselves with the events that mean the most to our consumers, and the Olympic Games is one that resonates globally.

How does Coca-Cola choose its partnerships in sport?

Outside of the right holders we sponsor some of the biggest global events across the world - they give us the values and the opportunities to touch the audiences that are important to us. We always start by asking: is this the right way to be targeting the audience? Both with new targets and the ones that we will continue to support.

In terms of the partners that we work with, especially in the Olympics, we make sure that we try to explore the synergies between the host cities, organisers and the other TOP [The Olympic Partner] sponsors.  


Aside from a global reach, what does Olympic sponsorship offer to Coca-Cola that other events and properties cannot?

If you look at the core values of the Olympics, they align perfectly with ours: respect and friendship. If you look at the Olympics, it is one of the most inspiring events in the world. It has, of course, changed a little bit because the athletes have gone from amateur to professional but don’t forget that these people dedicate their lives to a four-year cycle to competing at the highest level.

It is the medal, not money, that they are competing for and that, along with the dedication, is the inspiration that we give to other people.

We always look to align ourselves with the events that mean the most to our consumers, and the Olympic Games is one that resonates globally. The Olympic Games give Coca-Cola a unique opportunity to speak to, and refresh, sports fans on a global scale, something that is invaluable given the number of countries in which we operate.

The Olympic Games therefore provides us with opportunities to connect with consumers at both the retail level, as well as through more personal connections via consumer events and special promotions.


What stage are you at with planning for Tokyo 2020? How is each planning cycle structured?

We are very much at the early stages of preparation at the moment.

We are essentially in our process of laying down our legacy and planning for the team and obviously we have PyeongChang coming up in a few months’ time. So we are in the infancy stage, we are trying to work with the local market and the local team here [in Tokyo] and trying to see how Coke Japan can benefit.     

One of the good things that we do at Coke is the sharing of learning from event to event. The ability to share the knowledge and fly to other markets is imbedded in everything that we do. For us, it is integral that we are constantly learning from the past and improve for the future.    


How does Coca-Cola factor in the Winter Games? Or are they on a completely different sponsorship cycle?

Coca-Cola does not do a global marketing programme for the Winter Games. The host market obviously does a large activation, and several other countries around the world do their own programmes, but it’s not united under one campaign like we see for the Summer Games.

There will be lots of things where we cross and stay in touch with. Our team in Tokyo will go and learn from the team in PyeongChang, like they did from us in Rio last year.


What are the advantages in planning for Coca-Cola that the next three Olympic Games will be held in Asia?

I would say that they are all different markets so I couldn’t say whether or not it is actually an advantage. However, from a simple point of view, all three countries are in the same time zone so it becomes a lot easier to fly between PyeongChang, Japan and China than it was flying from Rio to Tokyo.

It does mean that you can imbed the brand into a group so we can try synergies but each market has different objectives that they need to build on that we can therefore start to create more legacies across the group as a whole.

The choice that McDonald’s made was down to them. I was not party to why they made that decision and I can’t speak on their behalf.  But, no it doesn’t affect us.

Are Coca-Cola's activities in sport comparable to those around other major events such as music festivals and entertainment? Where do they differ?

We always apply the same values to everything we sponsor. We have got to find the common goal between an event and a sponsorship that we do that links to things that are important to us as a brand and as a corporation.

Coca-Cola on sale at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil

You had many interesting activations in Rio. Can you tell us a bit about them? How will Tokyo differ from Rio in that sense?

Rio was a great Games in so many ways for us.

One of the things that we really stepped up was the real time marketing, which we first applied at the 2014 Fifa World Cup. We really accelerated that in 2016 in terms of engagement, experience, real time marketing by housing it into one place. Furthermore, we set about utilising influences in a far deeper way and engaging more with athletes.

There was lots really amazing stuff that we did that drove really positive results for the Coke brand. That was all about integration, working in a very new social world and making sure that is where we started. We fundamentally engaged with our teenage group, which is a hard group to touch, with a lot more of a presence on social media.

Each place that hosts an Olympic Games is unique in some respects. Whilst the Olympics is similar in country after country, it is when you come to new markets that you find that they are all slightly different.

The speed with which the lives of the consumers are changing means that we have to adapt quickly in return. This means forging great partnerships with the likes of Facebook or Google and using all of these different tools that are available to us, and really making sure that we execute in the right way for that specific market, then seeing how much of that we can take globally.

It is a continuous evolution, which makes what we do so engaging and fun.


What was your reaction to McDonald’s withdrawal as an Olympic sponsor? Has Coca-Cola revisited its relationship with the Games at all in recent years?

The choice that McDonald’s made was down to them. I was not party to why they made that decision and I can’t speak on their behalf.  But, no it doesn’t affect us. Obviously they were a long-term sponsor, so it was sad to see them go but I am sure that they did it for the right business reasons.


How do questions about Coca-Cola's place in a healthy lifestyle factor into your messaging?

From Coca-Cola, to Powerade, to Smart Water, The Coca-Cola Company provides total beverage options. You can chose a drink for every occasion whichever way you need to be hydrated; whether it’s water, sports drinks, or Coke. We agree that too much sugar isn’t good for anyone - but we also know that sugar can be part of a healthy diet when it’s consumed in the right amount.


What is your reaction to the news about the 2024 and 2028 Games? How will that affect Coca-Cola’s thinking about the Games after 2020? Do you think that having a two Summer Olympic cycles confirmed at this stage will be advantageous to a sponsor?

Both Paris and Los Angeles will be wonderful hosts for the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Summer Games. Our partnership currently extends through the Olympic Games of 2020. While we cannot comment or speculate on future commitments, clearly, we are dedicated to the principles of Olympism and are proud of our strong commitment to the Olympic Games for 89 years and counting.