05/21/2012 11:05 EDT | Updated 07/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Politics, private sector new inspiration for Canada's Olympic marketing efforts

OTTAWA - Politicians and athletes are equally devoted to their respective games.

And lately they're also using the same playbook.

Marketing strategies that used to be a hallmark of the Stephen Harper government — like direct outreach to the ethnic media and scripted news conferences backed by lavish photo ops — are quickly becoming a mainstay of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

The COC's former low-key approach to fundraising and marketing has also been supplanted by an aggressive strategy that used to be the purview of political campaigns and private sector brands.

It's a far cry from bake sale fundraisers or even the rollout of the red mittens, a fuzzy, feel-good event around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Instead of red mittens, they're now rolling out the red carpet in the form of a glitzy fundraising luncheon in Quebec City this week as the elite of the sporting world gather there for two sets of high-profile meetings.

The newly aggressive COC is raising eyebrows in the upper echelons of international amateur sport, where such lavish displays are usually reserved for the Olympics themselves.

But many privately just shrug their shoulders at what they refer to as "Aubut's style."

Marcel Aubut, the former head of the Quebec Nordiques, was elected to lead the COC just before the 2010 Vancouver Games. He promised a different kind of organization than the one run by his predecessors.

At the time, he said he wanted to take a more corporate approach to the world of amateur sport and ensure Canadians paid attention not just in the weeks before the Olympics but all year round.

So rather than draw from the ranks of other athletic associations to build his team, Aubut brought in the former spokesman for the prime minister and executives from the corporate world.

Each are deploying the strategies that have worked for them.

Though many complain that Harper's communications strategy has reduced the government to a series of talking points and e-mailed statements, others credit it for his majority government victory in 2011.

Meanwhile, the COC's splashy new "Give Your Everything" campaign was produced by the same man behind Nike's "Just Do It" ads.

Sports marketing expert Norm O'Reilly said the new approach is a double-edged sword.

"Everybody complains when you're not slick, which is typical in not-for-profit amateur organizations," he said. "So all of the sudden when you get slick, people get critical."

But he said with so many organizations competing for Canadians' time, the COC has to fight to cut through clutter and be as good as the pros.

"This is what they should be doing," O'Reilly said.

The fundraising lunch on Tuesday featuring International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge is believed to be the first time a national Olympic committee has held this kind of event.

Tables at the event started at $2,500 for 10 people but the COC put together packages for as much as $15,000 that guaranteed access to Rogge.

"We have to be very creative in finding ways to help athletes," said Aubut. "The traditional small things are good, but it's not enough."

The lunch was announced with great fanfare and a series of media events were held, including one just to detail the logistics. The event itself includes a performance by Cirque du Soleil.

The result, the committee says, is that over 400 tables have been sold.

Aubut makes no apologies for his bold new approach.

He notes the fact that the COC has already managed to re-sign major sponsors RBC and HBC as proof that it's working.

"We take the best of everywhere and use those tools," Aubut said. "It's not complicated."

Aubut once had lofty goals for his hometown — getting a winter Olympic Games.

That dream is on hold for now. One wrinkle is the international ski federation's position that proposed ski courses are not elite enough for their needs.

Still, the fact that the IOC and the heads of all the sport federations are in Quebec City this week at least opens the doors to some conversations, Aubut admitted.

"There is no doubt that it's a great occasion for Quebec City," said Aubut. "The goal is not to harass people or lobby them. The goal is let's get a better network. Let's make sure we know more of them and they know more of us."

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