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An Olympic Testament To The Power Of Brand Licensing

Many believe that executing a successful idea in the business world is a straightforward process for educated and experienced business men and women. However, to be successful in business, one must not just check off a list of dos and don’ts, but dig deeper into what consumers are thinking and how they process a purchasing decision. A good idea is simply not enough. Some of the most successful business ventures are those that transcend common sense, such as in many cases of brand licensing.

One example that comes to mind is when I worked for Coca-Cola during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. I had to convince the Japanese Olympic Committee to sign an agreement that would authorize us to create and sell co-branded merchandise, as well as set the terms for how the program would be run. I knew the task would be difficult. I set up a meeting and flew to Tokyo.

Each time the committee raised an objection, I countered with the merits of the program. One objection was that they believed a co-branded program would cannibalize single-branded sales. I emphasized that the Coke brand would not take away sales, but actually add consumers to the mix. Still, they wouldn’t budge.

For the Committee, the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze. All they had to do was sit back and collect the royalties generated, but instead, they demanded, “Why would anyone want to buy Coke merchandise?” Exhausted, and with nothing to lose, I responded, “I can’t say for certain, but what I can tell you is that almost a billion dollars of Coca-Cola branded merchandise was purchased worldwide last year.” And some of that merchandise might, at first blush, seem to be off-brand, like Coke Shoes. With that statement, the Committee agreed to our program and I left feeling victorious.

The Coca-Cola Pin Trading Center in Nagano ended up a tremendous success. On the last day of the Olympic Games, a crowd queued for blocks and blocks. With almost all the Olympic-branded pins sold, shipments of basic Coke pins had to be couriered from Atlanta so there would be something to sell. Sales were over $40,000 on opening day and increased each day of the 17 days of the Olympic Games. Japan had fallen into a pin-collecting craze. For those that came to Nagano and purchased pins, I am certain there is a place in most of their homes where they display their Coca-Cola Olympic pins and other co-branded merchandise.

Everyone smiles when I share this story. But logically, it doesn’t make sense. Where is the connection between the Olympic Games, a fizzy drink and commemorative pins? Its success, however, did not depend on logic. While the planning and implementation of every brand licensing program must be carefully and meticulously detailed, that is only what makes the program possible, not desirable. A brand licensing program like this works because it is associative and offers access to something people want to feel a part of and crave more of. The people in Nagano who stood in line to acquire a pin were collecting more than just a souvenir; they were deepening their associations with an event they never wanted to forget.

The Consumer-Idea Connection 

In order to understand how ideas take hold and why brand licensing is so powerful, you first need to understand how consumers assimilate ideas into their lives. In my experience, it’s their wish to find meaning that drives them to connect to thoughts and objects through stories — even between things that do not seem to make sense at first. It has been said that when human beings envision emotional or historical relationships between disparate objects or experiences, they create a narrative. That is how someone’s idea becomes something that is exciting to share with strangers and how an idea grows into a phenomenon among fans. The shared idea is then incorporated into our lives and becomes a part of our story in which we grow around, become extremely passionate about and continue to share. This growth of personal stories and shared connections with others who have similar passions is what makes a community where a brand can continue to grow its own story.

By matching great products with great brands, brand licensing creates a framework that allows ideas and stories to be shared. In fact, brand licensing is often driven by the outgrowth of the relationships that people have with ideas and their wish to bring those ideas together into forms and systems that they can surround with their personal story. By tapping into that human passion, communities around the brand grow and thrive and make us want more. Humans love ideas that add value to their world. Brands are one of our collections — they are a part of how we organize and link our lives.

So what makes ideas take hold and drive others to want to integrate them into their personal lives? Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Ideas Catch On, says that ideas are taken for reasons more complex and nuanced than a correctly selected set of whispers. Ideas explode, he suggests, because of six things: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories. Those six characteristics help turn an idea from one person into something that more people want to share and feel passionate about.

An idea in itself is not enough. It must make sense. It must add value for people, and it must trigger the act of sharing to become something others are interested in. It must also be framed in a way that resembles the brand: a sense of entity, tangible enough to be identified and with enough critical mass to desire more. A great brand licensing program isn’t simply looking to expand a brand into new places. It’s looking to work with what people know and love in order to change the emotional scale at which the brand operates and create a story that people want to be a part of and share with others.