Rio 2016: Inside the CBC’s branded-content engine room

How working branded content into live TV is giving the CBC experience in collaborating with brands for the upcoming 2018 Winter Games.
CBC Olympic control room

It is one of the most coveted periods for marketers, when eyes are glued to screens to witness feats of superhuman endurance and ability like 16 year-old Penny Oleksiak’s record-breaking 100-metre freestyle win.

And to match the epic nature of the global sporting competition, the CBC has launched an Olympic strategy of its own to build long-term content through brand partnerships.

The pubcaster, according to Adam Mitchell, associate director, sports marketing at CBC/Radio-Canada, is using the Olympics as a learning lab and has plans to take lessons learned this year into the upcoming 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

“Advertisers are looking for more meaningful ways to integrate into content rather than just run commercials,” says Mitchell. What’s happening during the Rio games is a good testing ground in how media spend is shifting into a distributed mix of broadcast, digital social and branded-content.

That shift in strategy isn’t just driven by brands, says Mitchell, who is part of a six-member team working daily with brands on Rio content. It’s also driven by a change in the demands of Canadian consumers, the kind of advertising they’re comfortable with and how (and when) they want to see it.

And then there is this added current-year reality. The most recent Olympic events that aired on Canadian TV screens took place in locations some distance away – London (2012) and Sochi (2014) – giving the pubcaster an opportunity to adapt quickly as things develop on ground, and as conversation around key moments builds on social channels in real-time.

“Our go-to-market strategy for Rio was to be open-minded and super collaborative with our sponsors,” Mitchell recalls. “It began with us asking them :what is your business objective, what do you want to accomplish to try and find the right way to deliver your brand objectives.”

It began with a long-term play: CBC’s own show Road to the Olympic Games, from which it was able to spin-off branded content with RBC and Petro Canada. “This is not about investing in two or three weeks but about extending a brand’s presence so when they go into the Games they have momentum on their side and can extend the conversations,” he explains.

Mitchell says this Olympics season has been a veritable training ground for all partners involved because of the next-to-no time difference with Rio, as well as the changing nature of Canadian consumption of the Games. As viewers watch events as they unfold, there is also more pressure on the CBC team to create a model that is responsive to real-time data and nimble enough to adapt to on-ground changes.

Two key players in the Olympic messaging are RBC and Canadian Tire  (CBC has about 10 major Olympic sponsors on board: Tim Hortons, Petro Canada, Visa and Samsung among them). And while these brands set aside a significant chunk of their media spend for the Olympics, they’re changing up how it’s allocated.

“It’s a huge difference [from the past],” says Mitchell. “In Sochi we had a couple of partners who dipped their toes into branded content. A lot of it was pre-produced and per-packaged and it was just a matter of saying, OK, we’re going to run this.’. In Rio it’s completely changed and the demands from partners and Canadians is to be able to see content that is real-time, that is responsive.”

Both RBC and Petro Canada, for example, have been developing long-term messaging around sports, endurance and Canadian identity through branded-content series like RBC’s “Training Ground” and Petro Canada’s “Faces of Tomorrow.”

“The Olympics are a great launch pad for any new iteration of your brand,” explains Matt McGlynn, senior director, brand marketing at RBC. “Which is why we launched a new kind of construct, which we referred to as back stories.”

Those back stories are stories about the next generation of Canadian athletes told in RBC’s “Training Ground” series, a five-year partnership with the CBC, which it announced in February (media, M2; creative BBDO). As Canadian athletes have been performing well at the Games, the bank has been working with Mitchell’s team to ensure that their message demonstrating their support for the Olympic Games alongside key live moments from the action in Rio, pushing out stories about future athletes and creating spots to match content from its series like Tanya Bambi’s story, which is currently part of its ad campaign.

At the moment all the brands and CBC/Radio-Canada’s marketing team have a daily conversation to monitor how campaigns are working and how their branded content is being placed.

A digital specialist monitors the social conversation and pushes that up in the linear space. That includes conversations sparked by branded moments like athletes being interviewed in RBC’s “Someday” space in Rio. As athletes filter into the financial co’s studio, the control room team finds appropriate placement to push that content onto screens.

And while the Olympics got off to a shaky start with less people tuning in to see the Olympic Opening Ceremony than they did four years ago, the pickup has been building.

So far the most watched moment in the Games was the 100-metre men’s sprint  when 6.9 million viewers tuned in to watch 21-year-old Canadian athlete Andre De Grasse pick up the bronze medal in, according to overnight numbers from Numeris provided by CBC. (Some 3.4 million viewers tuned in to see Oleksiak’s race).

And by halfway point, CBC is reporting that 30.4 million Canadians have watched some part of the coverage across its networks, with 20.4 million tuning in on TV and digital platforms on Aug. 14. The broadcaster has also seen an increase in traffic to its website, with 116 million page views and 19 million video views over 400 million minutes of video streamed between Aug. 5 and 14.

And here’s where that time difference kicks in. Compared with the last Winter Olympics, where Canadian athletes typically perform better, the 2+ average minute audience (AMA) for the first 10 days of Rio in the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. timeslot is up 51%; in the Pacific primetime comparison, the increase is 83% over Sochi.

Those numbers are also meaningful for a London comparison, where the Pacific primetime coverage is seeing a 186% AMA increase in the first 10 days.

With the Rio Games soon to be over, the CBC has its sights trained on Pyeongchang.