Corey Mull, a researcher with our sister program, the Marketing Leadership Council, recently shared his take on branding at the London Olympics.
On Friday, athletes from all around the globe will file into London’s brand-new Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies of this year’s Olympics. People on every continent – now connected to far-off events at an unprecedented magnitude - will tune in to watch their nations’ athletes compete in sports we never really think about most of the time; decathalon, archery, synchronized diving and rhythmic gymnastics will occupy the imagination of the world. I’m far from the world’s most patriotic American, but even I get a swell of pride when The Star-Spangled Banner plays during medal presentations.
With the Olympics serving as global focal point for the next few weeks, it’s natural that brands want to glom onto the attention. And since the Olympics cost pretty serious money to put on, organizers are all for it. But some of the efforts organizers are making to protect brands’ investments are leading to an outcry from Londoners and people around the world.
(Want to create some buzz for your company without buying tickets to London? Check out our guidance on proactive PR for the networked communications environment and differentiating your corporate brand with a focused image and empowered supporters.)
Consider: to prevent non-sponsor logos from inadvertently being photographed or recorded during the games, London organizers have implemented a variety of Venue Restriction Zones in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic events. In these Zones, non-sponsors may have no presence, official or unofficial.
The only restaurant option, for instance, is McDonalds; the only credit card one can pay with is Visa. Athletes are not permitted to tweet or blog about non-sponsor brands. Fans that attempt to enter with non-sponsor brands prominently displayed on their clothing may find themselves barred from entry, or forced to turn their shirts inside-out. Non-sponsor logos that are a fixed part of those areas – for instance, the brands on bathroom fixtures and corporate-sponsored stadiums – are being covered up.
If that were the only thing the organizers were doing to protect brand investments, I’m not sure we’d be seeing widespread outrage. But it isn’t: in addition to the restriction zones, UK authorities are sending out 250 uniformed brand police with the power to levy fines as high as £20,000 ($31,000; €26,000) on individuals and businesses who “create an association with the Games” without having paid for a sponsorship. This has led to small businesses being sanctioned for the use of words like “2012″, “summer”, “gold”, and other common English phrases that could be associated with the Games. Olympic Cafe, a London restaurant whose name pre-dates the Games, had to remove the “O” from its sign to comply with brand standards.
The effort seems to be aimed at preventing “ambush marketing” – a strategy embraced by big and small brands alike who were unable or unwilling to pony up the cash to by an official sponsor of prominent events. For instance, organizers are worried about tactics like Nike’s at the 2010 World Cup, which saw the athletic-wear manufacturer project an ad onto a prominent Johannesburg building and launch a soccer-focused campaign that outclassed the event’s official sponsors. Brands are understandably concerned about shelling out serious cash to sponsor an event, and seeing their rivals talked about – and potentially gain share – anyway.
But nothing will convince me that the potential loss of a few advertising dollars on an athletic event that – let’s face it – folks will forget about in a month or two is worth creating the kind of ill will that brands and their Olympic partners seem to be creating in London. And, to be honest, it seems that the real problem is that Olympic sponsorship might simply not be worth the money, at least at the prices brands are paying now. If the only way to get a return on your investment is to enforce draconian rules about harmless speech, isn’t the price too high?