As quoted in the Times of London, September 8, 2012
“…The disabled athletes have proved to be a constant source of wonder, delight and surprise – in triumph and disaster alike, many have expressed the hope that their success will mark a permanent shift in public attitudes to disability. It is a hope worth clinging to.”
As the London 2012 Paralympic Games conclude and the London organizers can reflect on what has been the modern era’s most successful Paralympic Games ever, based on attendance, worldwide viewing figures and plaudits from sporting officials as well as teams, journalists and the general worldwide public, it is clear to see that a subtle but major transformation has occurred. Suddenly, being ‘disabled’ is potentially no longer seen as a ‘handicap’ and ‘physical disability’ has entered mainstream social consciousness. What happened was quite simple – the power of ‘re-branding’ via the use of language, imagery and story telling with ‘hero-celebrity’ appeal. The Paralympics (capitalising on the ‘halo’ effect of the Olympics’ success) captured the imagination of the British public and brought a re-definition and appraisal of a silent and invisible minority. The Paralympics has rebranded what it means to be ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’ into potentially something ‘cool’ and to be accepted with respect.
1. First of all, by connecting the Paralympics in look and feel to the Olympics the London 2012 brief achieved something extraordinary – it unified the two Games and gave them a sense of mutual purpose and vision. They were seen for the first time as equals and ‘two sides’ of the same coin – that of the power of humanity and sport to unite, compete and celebrate human sporting achievement.
2. Secondly, the Paralympic participants (the Paralympians) were treated equally as sportsmen and sportswomen within the same team (in the UK, Team GB). They were portrayed as athletes first, and their physical limitations only underscored the dedication to proving the athleticism and dedication of their mind and body. The stroke of branding genius was thanks to Channel 4, the Official Broadcaster of The Paralympic Games in the UK, and their campaign to promote the Paralympics called ‘Meet the Superhumans’. In effect, they made the disabilities of Team GB and wider global Paralympic athletes the source of their strength and inspiration. The Paralympians’ ability (rather than disability) to overcome their physical challenges (not handicaps) to compete, to perform and to project their strength and humanity onto the competitive sporting field captured the public imagination. It made them look and feel not only as ‘Superhumans’ but ‘Superheroes’. The roll call of Team GB Paralympic ‘celebrities’ such as Peacock, Story, Pearson, Cockroft, Weir, and Simmonds now rival that of Bolt, Farah, Ainslie, Daley, Ennis, Pendleton, Wiggins and Hoy which give them ‘hero’ and role model status. The use of language and ‘celebrity’ iconographic treatment allowed viewers and supporters to identify with the athletes in a way that demanded respect, not pity.
3. As the Channel 4 promo said – ‘Forget about everything you ever thought about strength’ while Nike-style camera shots and Urban music played showing athletes in training, preparation and competition. Effectively saying – whatever you thought before, think again. The treatment and language signaled ‘cool’ and singlehandedly rebranded ‘disability’. The subtle reference in the film treatment as well to whether their physical limitations were from birth, or as a result of war or accident provides a subtle reminder that anyone’s life can be altered or challenged and changed by a physical disability. But, that the human spirit is wonderful – and there is hope and strength to be found inside one’s self. The effect is still the same – these athletes are now ‘super-human’ in their quest for winning, and overcoming obstacles. No longer to be seen as someone to pity or feel sorry for – but rather to support and acknowledge. It is one of the hallmarks of a free and open society that this ‘invisible discrimination’ is dealt with openly and honestly – and, the challenge remains after The Games to ensure that the rights and requirements of the physically disabled are heard and acted upon.
It was not just Britain’s athletes that triumphed either – for it is China that ends the games in first place for overall medals and which fielded the largest Paralympic team of all nations. It is the names of Pistorius, Arlen, Vergeer, Zanardi, Valenzuela, Rohan, Ping, Dias and Oliveira from around the globe that reinforce the global nature of this triumph.
4. Which leads to the last lesson of re-branding, The lesson of how the emotive ‘story line’ of the Paralympics was brought into everyone’s lives through the power of television, the internet and brand association. The Paralympics became an event and now a ritual that helps to celebrate humanity, and engage viewers in a form of entertainment they understand. By engaging key sponsors like Channel 4, and a core sponsor in the form of Sainsbury’s supermarkets (well done Sainsbury’s!) – the organizers thoughtfully and emotionally captured the imagination of the general public. For years, the rational arguments about the rights of disabled and physically impaired people have been discussed and noted – however they had not until now been presented in an emotive manner that helps people understand and empathize with the subject. Physical evidence of disabled and physically impaired people in the form of wheelchair ramps, handicap-friendly hotel rooms, toilets and public transport infrastructure is the only evidence in our built world of an acknowledgement that this minority even exist. Yet, all too often the public debate has focused on the needs of the majority and often questions why this ‘added expense’ for taxpayers’ money seems not to be used or relevant? In effect, is it worth the effort and cost? The answer, of course is yes! The presence and stature of ‘blade runners’ and of innovative ‘wheel chairs’ built like Ferrari’s now present a more modern and thoughtful view of how the physically challenged can be mobile. The need for accessibility in our built environment, and acceptability in our social environment is the legacy that the Paralympics hope to create. Now, the spotlight must be focused on how to leverage this re-branding into actions and support that truly change perceptions.
However, It is just the start…
For it is now up to the public and public officials to build on this attitude shift and consciousness and help make a more positive future for all disabled people to be seen as ‘superhumans’. Of course, not all people with a disability are athletes, or are as fortunate or as healthy as many of the Paralympic athletes – but, the point is to now acknowledge this with respect and care. The fact that the language and the debate has been changed (for the better!), and that major brands and companies now seem inclined to see the value and benefit of association with ‘superhumans’ and the minority they represent is a major move forward. It is estimated that the Paralympic gold medalists will command substantial fees and offers for product endorsements and brand associations. Excellent!
Congratulations to all the participants, sponsors and the London 2012 Paralympic organizers – again, FutureBrand was proud to be an official provider, as part of McCann Worldgroup, for branding and design services. These games provide a very future positive story for how to change hearts and minds, and a salient lesson in the power of branding to change attitudes and shift perceptions. Perhaps, the greatest re-branding success story of the year and one to support even more passionately in Rio 2016!Social tagging: Branding > London 2012 > paralympics > social > Superhumans