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February 25, 2019 • History Factory

Kirsten Seckler is chief brand and communications officer for the Special Olympics. She recently spoke with Jason Dressel, managing director at History Factory and executive director of the agency’s Anniversary Marketing Summit, to share how the Special Olympics approached its 50th anniversary milestone.

Q: When you first started thinking about your 50th anniversary, what was the Special Olympics mindset?

The most important thing, for us, is that we were repositioning our brand for the future, and we wanted to use the milestone and awareness we were going to get. We want people to understand that, moving forward, we are a movement for inclusion, that our athletes serve the communities. It’s not just about service to them, but that we empower them to be productive members of their community. They’re the best teachers of inclusion.

Q: Was your brand refresh something that was already in the works, or were you thinking about the 50th anniversary as a driver for the rebranding? Was it coincidental, or was it really deliberate?

It was deliberate in the fact that we were going to use the milestone to emphasize work that already had been happening. So, for example, we have been really pushing for unified sports, which is sports with and without intellectual disability. And that’s a program that we’ve invested and done sponsorship in, and really starting to emphasize more. So at our celebration in Chicago, we had the first ever Unified Sports Cup, our own World Cup. All this work was already happening, but from an external standpoint and a brand standpoint, it was a great opportunity for us to kind of push that story even bolder.

Q: Apart from a global brand repositioning, what were other important goals for your 50th?

As with any nonprofit, you always look at a milestone year and say, “How do we raise money?” So it was important that we also had a financial goal that we put forth. And so two of the business goals that we put forth were that we were going to raise $100 million, but we were going to engage 100 million people, and that would happen over the course of five years, starting from the year before our anniversary to 2021.

Q: How were decisions made regarding which tactics to pursue, and how were they different than what you pursue year in and year out?

We did a lot of research. We did a feasibility study on fundraising to see what would be the best approach to using our 50th anniversary to raise funds. That was a good investment for us, because it gave us an idea of what our current donors and what potential donors would want us to focus on.

We had to figure out how to celebrate our history, but also reimagine. We were very deliberate in saying, “Okay, our 50th anniversary is on a Friday, so let’s celebrate our history on July 20, and then use it as a launching pad for the next 50 years.” So on the first day of our next 50 years, we had a Global Day of Inclusion. We opened up Soldier Field in Chicago, and we had Unified Sports for the community to come and be a part of. We had all kinds of different inclusive activities, including a big concert with Chance the Rapper and lots of other artists that was themed around inclusion. In between sets, we showed Special Olympics footage. It wasn’t a Special Olympics show at all, where everybody talked about us the entire time. It was just a really cool concert where Special Olympics was kind of scattered within. It was out of our comfort zone but it wound up being a really great event for us.

That night, all over the world, we had 225 buildings light up in our red brand color for inclusion. And we used that opportunity to engage all of our accredited programs worldwide, so even if they couldn’t be in Chicago, they were doing something.

We also did a lot with our existing digital channels, and we had a live broadcast of the finals of our Unified Cup. That was a big shift for us. It was the first time we’ve ever had live sports coverage. That really made a statement. It was on ESPN, and it wasn’t just traditional Special Olympics—it was our unified work that we were doing. That changed the game.

Q: We saw you created the 50 greatest stories or moments from Special Olympics history. How was that content curated? Did the organization already have an archive to pull from?

We do have an archive. We’ve been preparing and pulling together photos and stuff so we could celebrate our history. Fortunately, we had celebrated the 30th and 40th anniversaries, so we had a lot of things at our fingertips that we could repurpose and build on.

And then from a content perspective, to reinforce this new message, we are doing 50 Game Changers, because these are now moments in our history or moments of Special Olympics or individuals whose lives have been changed because of inclusion. The Game Changer series wasn’t just a big splash in July around our 50th. We’re now reinforcing our new brand positioning weekly with this promotion.

Q: Did you secure partnerships or sponsorships as part of the 50th anniversary?

We did. We looked at a combination of support: corporate partnerships, high-net-worth donors, individual donors, digital fundraising. We also raised money around our Eternal Flame of Hope monument that was built in Chicago, where you could donate a certain amount and have your name put on a wall. So we had a variety of different mechanisms we were using to raise toward that $100 million goal.

Q: Did you have any challenges that you felt were unique to the Special Olympics and your organizational structure?

One big thing we had to consider is, because we’re federated, when we were doing the events around the 50th, we were dealing with a lot of different stakeholders. In 1968, we started only in Chicago, when their Parks and Rec hosted the first games. But over the course of the last 50 years, we’ve grown to be in 176 countries around the world. So we had to balance making sure that we could do something that was going to engage all of our programs worldwide while also doing something big in Chicago, where the city wanted to do something big with us, and we obviously wanted to do a lot with the Special Olympics Illinois program.

Help celebrate the Special Olympics 50th anniversary by contributing to athletes’ access to health care and sport.

Special Olympics is sharing its anniversary case study at the annual Anniversary Marketing Summit on April 9th, 2019 in Chicago. For more information visit


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