FEATURE27 July 2012

Making Olympic history

Nielsen is the first official research provider for an Olympic Games. Joe Fernandez caught up with its London 2012 team to see how intelligence is powering event preparations.


London is the first Olympic host city to have an official market research provider. In June 2009, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) appointed Nielsen, the world’s biggest market research organisation by revenue, as a “value in-kind” sponsor. As a ‘tier three’ provider, Nielsen is expected to contribute between £10-£20 million-worth of services

“In the last two and a half years, the Nielsen team at London 2012 has conducted more than 80 discrete research projects to provide insight that informs strategic decision-making throughout LOCOG”

Its role is broad: to undertake all the market research for the organising committee. That includes developing a market research strategy, tracking studies and organising online panels and surveys.

Announcing the deal, London 2012 chairman Lord Sebastian Coe said: “We recognise that we can’t second-guess what people are saying. The most demanding stakeholder we have is the 60 million people out there who think they can pick the football team – we have to understand everything about what they think.”

On the path to glory
Nielsen was one of a number of research agencies to pitch for the work. Arguably it had an advantage, having provided its services in an unofficial capacity to the Beijing and Sydney Games. Now, as an official partner, the company is very much on the inside and has a research nerve centre within the new Olympic Park.

Staffing that nerve centre is a dedicated team of five researchers led by David Lucas, Nielsen’s head of research and insight for London 2012. He and his colleagues are involved in every major decision the organising committee makes, from the choice of the mascots two years ago to the execution of the closing ceremony.

Lucas said: “Embedding the research team within LOCOG has enabled us to establish a unique working relationship with the client, giving us unparalleled access to the decision-making process and a role as trusted adviser within the organisation. Consequently, we have played a pivotal role in providing insight and shaping strategy at the most senior levels.”

Work on the Olympics research began almost as soon as the firm was appointed. In October 2009 Lucas was drafted in from YouGov, where he worked as head of media consulting, to plan how Nielsen could best utilise its skillsets of gathering information and insight about what consumers watch and buy and apply it to the Games. The demand for research hasn’t let up since. “In the last two and a half years, the Nielsen team at London 2012 has conducted more than 80 discrete research projects to provide insight that informs strategic decision-making throughout LOCOG,” says Lucas. “By Games time, this will be well over 100.”

Playing to win
For LOCOG, research has proven to be a valuable component in the delivery of a smooth-running Games. Paul Deighton, the chief executive of the organising committee, has hailed Nielsen’s work as “the vital levers we need to communicate effectively with our fans”.

LOCOG has kept much of Nielsen’s findings close to its chest, but some of its research has been published, such as the results of a study that helped design the ticket price mechanisms.

Deighton explains: “We used Nielsen to help us research the price elasticity of demand for tickets – how wide we can range the ticket prices in a way that will be acceptable to the public. Getting that right was something where having evidence to help us with our assumptions was very important.”

The company also had an input into the development of the Games Maker scheme – the recruitment of volunteers to staff the Olympic park, answer questions, help visitors find their way around and direct them to their seats.

“Nielsen really helped us by defining what the propensity of the British public was to volunteer so we could define exactly the right number to have and calibrate how we position its appeal,” says Deighton.

Similarly, research that showed there was strong public appetite for the Paralympic Games was used by LOCOG as part of its communication strategy to promote the sale of Paralympic tickets.

Watching the watchers
The next phase of Nielsen’s research is to explore what LOCOG calls “the spectator experience”. This work involves measuring and monitoring sentiment at both the Games and the various sponsorship activities. Deighton describes it as “a series of cool integrations at the Games which will bring to life a totally new way that fans can experience and judge the Olympics”.

“The next phase of Nielsen’s research is to explore what LOCOG calls ‘the spectator experience’. This work involves measuring and monitoring sentiment at both the Games and the various sponsorship activities”

Precise plans are still tightly under wraps, but Research has learnt that methods being considered include running location-triggered mobile surveys during events as well as venue-specific face-to-face interviews using tablets, both of which would help the organising committee to monitor the Games.

Some of the technologies being deployed seem particularly well-suited to capturing the feedback of younger people – a core target audience for Lord Coe.

Coe was clear, in announcing the deal with Nielsen, that he would be expecting the firm to help the Games resonate with a youth audience. “One of our challenges – and opportunities – is connecting with young people,” he said. “Nielsen will help us do this and will, I’m sure, prove to be a huge asset to our marketing push.”

Through the use of app-based and mobile surveys, Nielsen is looking to make sure the youth voice is heard. Meanwhile, continual online surveys will assess visitors’ needs and expectations and measure how they were met.

Lucas says the scope of the work and the range of different research approaches it plans to use fits with its own innovation agenda – to come up with and deploy new ways of measuring consumers’ behaviour “wherever, whenever and whatever they are watching and buying”.

And, he adds, “whenever possible, the London 2012 research team utilises wider Nielsen resources, helping to extend the range of skills, knowledge and understanding within the organisation”.

Nielsen can’t run solo all the time though, and the firm has partnered with a number of associate companies to fulfil its Olympic undertakings.

“On certain projects we have worked with third-party suppliers where the service is not available internally,” says Lucas. “We also work with a wide range of key external stakeholders, including the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, the Greater London Authority, the Government Olympic Executive, the BBC, Channel 4, the British Olympic Association, the British Paralympic Association and UK Athletics.”

Finishing line
“There’s no question it’s a very complicated and complex project – that was our experience in Beijing and our expectation is that this one will be more complicated again.” So said Bob McCann, the man who led Nielsen’s winning bid at the time of the announcement.

With the Games just weeks away, the bulk of the work is now behind it. There will be post-event research and debriefs, no doubt, and several unnamed clients have engaged the firm to measure sponsorship recognition and consumer habits at the various Olympic venues.

But with the finishing line in sight, attention within Nielsen can start to turn towards capitalising on the opportunities now afforded the company thanks to its status as official research provider to the world’s biggest sporting event. It is, after all, “a chance for a company like ours to demonstrate to the world the power of research,” said McCann.

Lucas says the prominence of the firm’s work so far for LOCOG has helped to fuel a boom in demand for intelligence at future Olympic events and even for upcoming football World Cups.

“We have established Nielsen as the authority on managing the research requirements of large-scale projects of this nature, which has resulted in requests for advice from Sochi 2014, Rio 2016, Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 thus far.”

New business opportunities aside, Nielsen can also take from the experience plenty of lessons about managing a multi-year, multi-faceted and multi-million-pound research project which takes in a huge number of different research approaches and must address the full range of needs of a variety of stakeholders.

For Lucas, one lesson stands out: “Identify the key decision-makers early and establish a good relationship. Plan thoroughly but be prepared to be flexible.”

Masterminding an intelligent Olympics

By the time the Games get going, Nielsen will have completed 100 projects for the organising committee. Here David Lucas (pictured) talks us through some of the work:

  • An ongoing state of the nation tracking study – enabling LOCOG to stay in tune with the mood of the nation and monitor opinion and attitudes towards a wide range of Olympic and Paralympic topics
  • Commercial strategy planning – assisting the LOCOG commercial team in implementing the ticket sale programme, helping to shape and validate marketing strategy by providing insight into public understanding of the process.
  • Engagement campaign planning – working closely with the LOCOG marketing team to develop the strategic engagement campaigns for the final year of the project.
  • Spectator reach-out – developing a plan for measuring and understanding spectator experience. Test events over the last year trialled a range of alternative data collection methods, including face-to-face, online and questionnaires delivered to smart phones via apps using geo-location targeting.
  • Promoting the Paralympics – a range of projects to understand and inform attitudes towards disability and the Paralympic Games.
  • General organising committee considerations – including the design of the London 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville, Games Maker uniforms, transport, the Get Set Schools programme, event services, the torch relay and ceremonies

1 Comment

12 years ago

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