Hosting an Olympic Games used to mean following well-trodden templates and serving narrow audiences. But London had won the 2012 Games on the back of a promise of wide participation and legacy. Working alongside the organisers, we helped set the tone for a Games like never before.
The committees that organise Olympic Games had for many years seen the event primarily as an opportunity to put their city on the world map. London, however, was already enjoying its status as a top-tier global city and simply didn’t need to shout so hard.
Instead this Games was an opportunity to do things different. If there was to be a legacy, by definition this had to reach beyond the event, or indeed the location. And, for the Games to find this level of meaning, it would need the support of more than a logo. It would need a brand: 2012.
We developed a strategy for the 2012 brand with two sides – ‘Everyone’s Olympics’ and ‘Everyone Olympic’ – informed by the twin promises of participation and legacy.
Despite their grandeur, the Games of the past had essentially been a stage for elite athletes to perform incredible feats, all watched over by a somewhat narrow audience.
All very impressive, but it was clear that – if it was to achieve widespread participation – 2012 had to come down from the sky and motivate ordinary people. It had to be ‘Everyone’s Olympics'.
“This should have high levels of participation – not just people watching 12 hours of TV a day” Brian Boylan, Wolff Olins
For 2012’s legacy, we set the bar even higher. The real potential of these incredible athletes was not in exactly how fast they could run, or high how they could jump – it was in the values and actions their feats could inspire in the rest of us. We needed to create a movement of people doing their best in life: ‘Everyone Olympic’.
We combined the two sides of the strategy into a single brand idea: ‘Like never before’. This captured the intent for 2012 to break the Olympic mould while inspiring people to stretch themselves, in every sense.
It was critical that 2012 engage young people. Seb Coe had made children a big part of the bid and it was clear that people were far more likely to change their lifestyle while they were young. Sport in UK schools had been falling and here was a chance to create a force that could reverse that trend.
We needed to find out what these young people might like to see in an Olympic Games, so we arranged discussion groups with schoolchildren (aged 7 to 13) and adolescents (aged 16 to 19). The most important – and consistent – insight from this was that 2012 needed to bring the Olympics off the pedestal and onto the street.
The brand also clearly needed to have energy. We explored how we might express this, which led us to develop the energy line grid from which the logo – with its jagged lines – was built. It also set a structure for the patterning that would form a key part of 2012’s expression.
The final logo we developed was bold, spirited and dissonant – reflecting London as a modern, edgy city. In line with the legacy objective, it carried neither sporting images nor London landmarks.
“We didn’t want the logo to be the houses of parliament, with a hurdler going over and a watercolour brushstroke” Brian Boylan, Wolff Olins
A major feature of the 2012 brand was its flexibility. Where past Olympic logos had been very rigid, 2012 allowed other parties – of varying degrees of affiliation – to make it their own.
The logo could be populated with sporting imagery, providing a way to showcase the content of the Games. It could also be populated with the colours of sponsors, such as the black and white of Adidas, or the orange of EDF.
“Our original intention was that people could download and fill the logo themselves; an idea the major sponsors – McDonald’s, Adidas and Coca-Cola – thought was fantastic” Brian Boylan, Wolff Olins
But in making the logo flexible, the iconic Olympic rings presented a minor obstacle. Their use was tightly controlled by the IOC, so a presence on the logo would prevent it being widely adopted.
To solve this issue, we embedded the rings within the logo, rather than sitting them outside – something that had been done only once before, at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. This meant that – if an organisation didn’t have permission to use them – the rings could simply be dropped from the logo.
2012 now had a flexible expression that could belong to everyone. But the Games needed to live up to the promise, by putting ‘everyone’s’ at the core of the experience.
Until now the Paralympics had been a sort of whispered echo of the main event; a second-class citizen with its own logo and sponsors. Now, on our recommendation, the two events were treated as equals, with the same sponsors and their own variants of a single, shared logo. While the Cultural Olympiad – separated from its sporting cousin since 1948 – would now run alongside the main event.
To ensure the whole country felt part of the Games, the Olympic torch travelled throughout the UK en route to its final destination. In the same spirit, several sporting events including football and sailing, were held many miles away from London.
And, in a move that became known as ‘PIF’ (People In Front), at every event the seats closest to the action were reserved for the public. Sponsors and other delegates were – unusually for occasions of this stature – seated higher up in the stands.
Meanwhile, another of our ideas – the painting of a figurative 9th running lane through every town in the country – sadly failed to find the necessary support from local authorities.
In the summer of 2012 London delivered a breathtaking Olympic and Paralympic Games that, for a few heady weeks, was all-consuming.
While its success should not be credited to any one factor, it was apparent that the 2012 brand helped set a very special tone and atmosphere for the Games – one that grew in meaning, and energy, with each day that passed.
The UK saw huge levels of participation. In the run up, we helped Adidas to take the 2012 idea out into the country – something they did with gusto, holding events in London and at schools nationwide.
All in all, an estimated six million people got involved in events, at schools and in the streets, up and down the land. While Aardman Animations – creators of Wallace & Gromit – made a film with Tate that actively engaged 35,000 children in its production.
The 2012 logo – so controversial at launch – twinkled everywhere: on our screens; on our streets; in the arenas. And, in line with the original post-nationalistic intention, it quite literally carried the flag of every nation in the world. It was an inclusive brand in virtually every way.
For something initially so maligned, it was ironic that the brand came out of the other end in such good shape. The words of the original manifesto were heard many times, as key figures reiterated that this was an event that stretched beyond sport – indeed beyond the few short weeks of the event itself – for everyone, like never before.
This was perhaps demonstrated most brilliantly – most perfectly – during the Paralympics. Old notions of ‘normal’ were cast firmly aside as the UK went wild for one extraordinary human achievement after another.
A BBC Radio 5 live poll later found that the collective Games inspired one in five people in the UK to go and play sport. And if there can be one lasting legacy of 2012, it will hopefully be that future events continue to build on the idea that Olympic values are really, truly, for everyone.