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Eli Lilly’s Olympics campaign rewind: Leverage pandemic’s focus on health to assert its brand and assert its point of view

October 1, 2021 Beth Snyder


When Eli Lilly signed on to be an Olympic sponsor for the Tokyo Games in 2019, the pandemic was of course yet to come. When COVID-19 did hit, the Games were postponed and the newly busy pharma industry dove into researching vaccines and therapies.

But as successful vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments came to market, Lina Polimeni, Lilly’s chief media officer, noticed consumers were suddenly picking and choosing pharma brands.

“We were seeing pharma brand preference being created in front of our very eyes,” she said at Digital Pharma East this week.

While Lilly had begun planning its Olympic strategy before the pandemic, Lilly saw an opportunity to leverage the renewed interest in health to “introduce” the pharma company to people through the Olympics tie. As Polimeni said, “People didn’t know who Lilly was but we thought they should.”

So they turned to Wieden+Kennedy ad agency, most well known for its longtime award-winning Nike work, to help figure out how to do that.

RELATED: Eli Lilly opens Olympic Games with first corporate ad—and a reality check on the state of the U.S. health system

In what would end up being a wide-ranging campaign across TV, digital, social, prints, events and out of home promotions, Lilly not only tapped seven Team USA Olympic and Paralympic athletes as brand ambassadors but also created two anthemic TV commercials tackling health inequities in the U.S.

Megan Suttile, Lilly’s director of consumer marketing, said, “We also wanted to use the cultural platform of the Olympics to have a big conversation about our beliefs, as well. Oftentimes the Olympics is based on greatness from a gold medal perspective. So how many medals did a country win? But at the end of the day, the greatness of a country should be based on the health of us, particularly the most vulnerable.”

The national TV commercials re-introducing Lilly as “A Medicine Company” offered a reality check on American healthcare along with a promise to do more. As the second spot that debuted during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games stated: “Watching the success of our athletes will once again give the impression that America is the healthiest country in the world. We aren’t. But we can be.”

REALTED: Eli Lilly’s Olympic athletes share health challenge stories in the countdown to Games

And the campaign wasn’t only about messaging. Wieden+Kennedy also helped Lilly think outside of the pharma box on media placements.

For example, they included out of home billboards and signs designed to reach into local communities in large cities as pedestrian traffic picked back up. Media included a series of custom ads with Sports Illustrated with some of the Lilly athletes and their perspectives along with full-page inserts in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to reach thought leaders along with consumers.

“We wanted consumers to start to understand some of the work we’re doing—we don’t have it all figured out, right? But we’re taking the initiative to start to bring some of these topics and conversations to life,” Suttile said.

Polemini added, “We underestimate the ability to touch people’s emotion as a pharma company. At the end of the day, each and every one of us—regardless of your position in life—wants to have your health to be able to spend your life the way you want.”



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