Why global Olympic sponsorship is a sustainable investment for GE

Marc Sidwell
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Q What was your brand’s primary reason for being involved with the Games?

A We became an Olympic sponsor before I became chief executive in the UK, and that was a decision made at head office level. The first Games where GE was a worldwide partner was the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. We announced at the end of last year our agreement to renew the partnership for both the Olympics and Paralympics for the next four Games – Sochi, Rio, Pyeongchang in South Korea and the 2020 Games.

We own 49 per cent of NBC, which has had the US network rights to the Olympics for many years and has itself just extended its network coverage for the next four Olympics. So we had already seen through one of our divisions just what a phenomenal event the Olympics is, how it involves every nation, how it brings the world together every four years. I think our chairman and the board thought that this was an ideal platform on which to promote our brand and company. We had a strong US brand for historical reasons but were less well-known globally.

Q How was the case for involvement structured to the board?

A There were a number of factors. It gives us the opportunity, as an infrastructure company, to engage in the development of the Olympic venues, sometimes in countries where we have not had a significant presence. If you’re a company with GE’s breadth of portfolio – healthcare, aviation, energy, lighting – the Olympics is about more than just the venues, it’s the whole infrastructure upgrade that comes with it. Beijing was a hugely important Games for us because of the relationship we developed with the Chinese delivery agencies and, of course, because of the nature of China, the whole state machinery that was involved in it.

Q Was there any particularly hard question or issue to resolve in order to renew your Olympic sponsorship?

A Not really. The sponsorship of the first four Games has delivered more than we anticipated it could at the outset. We often get the question, why is a primarily infrastructure company that is an B2B business supporting an event which ultimately is the perfect opportunity for a B2C company to promote its brand. The answer is because the opportunities it offers are so diverse internally and externally.

Q How have you structured your business to maximise Olympic opportunities?

A Although the decision to become a global sponsor was a head office decision, the delivery of the commercial opportunity is done by a team that reports in to me, so they are the ones who are working with the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Organising Committee on the technical side of delivering the technology into the various venues. That is a huge effort that’s been going on since the Games was announced. We put a team in place in the UK in early 2006, even though it was six years away, because of the challenge of needing to work with the whole design team from day one to make sure that we can deliver the optimal technology to deliver them the sustainable venues that we want.

Q What are the most crucial commercial opportunities for you that the Games offers?

A We’re trying to showcase what a sustainable Olympic venue can look like and why it’s sustainable – energy efficiency, lighting efficiency, water re-use. And how the technology that we use in the Games venues can be used to support any development.

In 2005, we started ecomagination, our global sustainability platform. Our view as a company was that we needed to support a sustainable structure in terms of water, energy healthcare, travel. We wanted to improve our own profile and set goals as to how we would be more sustainable as a company but we realised that we could also use this as a means of selling more products if we had them independently certified as achieving certain set goals around carbon emissions and energy intensity. In 2010, we looked back at our performance over five years and we sold $70bn (£43.9bn) of certified equipment. In the Olympic Park, if you take the energy centre we’re supplying, it’s the same engine that’s also powering St Thomas’s Hospital and the Shard and the National Gallery. That is an eco-certified product because it is hugely more efficient – St Thomas’s is saving over $1.5m a year on its energy bills.

Q What legacy projects are you supporting around the London Games?

A We always want to support the communities in which the event takes place. We delivered over $10m of neonatal equipment to Homerton Hospital, around which it has built a new unit. We’re also relighting Tower Bridge with EDF, and that work will be completed by May, transforming the bridge with new LEDs.

As well as technology that will remain in the venues and the athletes’ village, we also supply technology for the polyclinic, including some of the most recent scanners, such an extremity MR, which is designed so you can scan just one limb. These will be available for the athletes, and then afterwards that equipment will stay behind and go on to various locations to support sports medicine in the UK.

Mark Elborne is president and chief executive for GE UK and Ireland.