SmartMoney Blogs

Pay Dirt
A daily look at what we buy, how we spend, and the companies that do right - and wrong - by their customers.

5 Best Olympic Marketing Coups


What it did: In November 2008, Subway signed an exclusive fast-food endorsement with Michael Phelps — whose contract with rival McDonald’s had expired earlier that year — and promoted him heavily for the past four years in preparation for the 2012 Olympics, portraying itself as a healthy fast-food option. An early start to their Olympic partnership was key, marketing pros say. Subway also stuck with Phelps in 2009 after he was photographed smoking marijuana. (Phelps later apologized, but Kellogg’s removed him from its cereal boxes.) “Putting their Olympic marketing hopes in Phelps’s hands was a risk, but it paid off,” says Tuchman, the marketing executive. In London, Phelps went on to become the most decorated gold medal Olympian of all time.

The payoff: Subway is successfully playing catch-up with McDonald’s. Last year, the number of Subway outlets worldwide surpassed McDonald’s. Subway also scored an 80% satisfaction rating, versus 71% for McDonald’s, according to a recent poll of 10,000 consumers by market researcher Tempkin.

Why it worked: Subway played its unofficial Olympics marketing campaign like a poker player, says Derrick Daye, managing partner at L.A.-based consultancy The Blake Project. Ads featuring Phelps are forbidden from airing anywhere from July 18 to Aug. 15, under Olympic rules, but this also means McDonald’s has caught most of the flack for being a fast-food restaurant sponsoring the Games. Case in point: The London Assembly, a group of local politicians, tried to block McDonald’s from becoming an official sponsor. Subway’s smartest move was to use Phelps before and after — but not during — the event, Daye says. (Subway did not respond to requests for comment.)



We welcome thoughtful comments from readers. Please comply with our guidelines. Our blogs do not require the use of your real name.

Comments (0)

    • Be the first to leave a comment on this blog.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.