If, hypothetically, your only exposure to elite-level skiing and snowboarding competition was the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, your resulting perception of the sports might be slightly off. The Olympics, after all, aren’t exactly a realistic depiction of pretty much anything.
For two weeks every 2 years, the Olympics create a fantasy world of sport in which everything is nearly perfect. Each event is draped in colorful Olympic branding and surrounded by idealized depictions of culture, friendliness, and general kum-ba-yah vibes that are rarely (if ever) found outside of those venues. Even the locations are transformed to such an extent in the years leading up to the games that the landscape is permanently changed afterwards.
For most of the sports featured in the Olympics, outside of the games that take place during those 2 weeks, the competitions look very different the rest of the time. The colorful Olympic-branded backdrops are still there, just with less color and more paid logo placement. Olympic athletes all dress the same, before, during, and after the events. From coordinated opening ceremony garb (with gloves even Lloyd Christmas would approve of) to official competition gear (clothing anyway, Olympic athletes are free to use any brand of skis and snowboards they choose), and even down to the exact jackets and sweatshirts they will be seen in when accepting a medal or doing an interview with the press are pre-planned and synchronized.
This is in direct conflict with the core culture of some of these sports. Snowboarding envolved from surfing and skateboarding, and shares numerous links with the related counter-culture communities around those sports. Even at the elite level, snowboarding still injects a certain amount of urban reflection and gritty texture into every image of the sport, its events, and the very athletes themselves. Long hair, baggy pants, and general surfer aesthetics are the norm when it comes to appearance in snowboarding, even at the professional level.
The events are similarly styled. Take the X Games, for example. The primary brand color of the X Games of recent years has been black, in stark contrast to the bright and sunny color palette of the Olympics. Events mostly take place at night and build around a party atmosphere. Method Man performs and Taco Bell sponsors the venue. Medals are awarded without ceremony, and they feature gold chains and spinning emblems. Olympic venues are usually drawing crowds during the day and are more subdued. No loud music, no parties, and medal cermonies that are far more regal and emotional.
It’s no wonder that some Olympic athletes appear uneasy at the big event, almost as if they are out of their element when for all intents and purposes they should feel right at home on the snow. But the Olympics are about as far from their “normal” as they can get, considering that for the other 206 weeks leading up to the Olympics they operate in an entirely different world.
This creates some interesting challenges for the folks who are tasked with branding the Olympic team and its athletes. They, like the athletes, spend most of their time in a world that is incredibly different from the one that they are thrust into under the global spotlight of the games. Burton is often at the center of this conflicted and challenging brand problem. During that same 200+ week span of time outside of the Olympics they are masters of reading their audience and creating clothing and equipment that their fans love. The Olympic challenge then becomes capturing that same energy with their athletes while also appealing to the Olympic crowd and fitting in with the very different branding of the venue. This year in particular, Burton nailed it a clothing design that covered all bases. It was clean and modern in appearance, minimalist by their standards really, but still fun and interesting and bearing some of the qualities that the snowboard world would appreciate.
Other winter sports experience similar challenges. Skiing, for example, has become a sport divided on culture and appearance not just at the Olympics but throughout the entire year as well. Skiing has evolved beyond the racing events and tightly-choreographed aerial events to also include halfpipe and slopestyle events, venues that were once the exclusive domain of the snowboarders. A similar evolution of branding and style has followed those athletes over to these snowboard-inspored events. Halfpipe skiers look and dress more like snowboarders than their racing counterparts.
This all puts winter sports in an unenviable position. How do you brand your sports, design your clothing and equipment, and market your products to multiple audiences who each want something different? Specialty brands have emerged that cater to one particular segment of a sport. Can any one company handle it all and win over fans of their brands in each market segment?
If there is any one lesson here it has to be this: Change is a constant in marketing and branding. Sometimes that change can come from one week to the next and then is gone again a few weeks later. Brands have always had to pivot quickly to react to changing demands of both their audiences as well as the demands of the industries they work within. Now more than ever it is crucial to read your audience carefully and respond strategically to stay on top of what is coming next.