With just days to go until the London 2012 Olympics begin, final preparations are unfolding in earnest. Competitors are fine-tuning their training and tactics; tickets for the lucky few to have succeeded in the electronic ballots have been sent out, and sports fans who prefer the domestic grandstand are planning out their television schedules. In addition, for the many well-known businesses that are hoping to cash in on the spectacle, the moment for their marketing campaigns to enter the final sprint is nearly upon them.
Many of the world's most recognisable brands – including Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Samsung and Visa – have boarded the Games as official sponsors, either by working directly with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), or by teaming up with host-city logistics group the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).
Forming these associations has not come cheap, with the official partners investing tens of millions of dollars in the opportunity and privilege to link their products and brands directly to the Olympics. To illustrate how much brand owners are likely to stake, McDonalds announced in January that it would continue as an official Olympics sponsor up to the year 2020, at a cost of roughly $100m for each four-year cycle.
In exchange for that financial commitment, LOCOG has taken what many consider to be an extremely tough stance on intellectual property (IP) protection. That has encompassed not only sponsors’ marks and the main Olympic logos, but specific words and phrases linked to the games, such as ‘London 2012’. Even loosely associated combinations, such as ‘Summer 2012’, have also been protected.
But how effective has LOCOG’s approach been in practical terms?
Sponsored credit where it’s due
If sensationalist coverage of certain enforcement actions is taken at face value, the answer is too effective. LOCOG’s staunch defence of its trademark holdings has drawn the ire of newspaper journalists over cases such as the Stratford Olympic Café, which was compelled to alter its name (you can now enjoy a bacon sandwich at the ‘Lympic’ Cafe), and a Staffordshire Florist who was forced to remove a window display featuring the iconic Olympic rings. In early June, it was revealed that all ATMs at key Olympic sites would be switched off for the duration of the Games and replaced with temporary ones run by exclusive card sponsor Visa. The crash-prone ticketing system was also restricted purely to Visa users, attracting heavy criticism.
All of those points have provided the media with ample opportunities for Lord Coe-bashing. But a more detailed look at LOCOG’s branding policy gives scant room for doubt that the organisation has played with a straight bat all along.
The official London 2012 website features extensive instructions on what is protected and how it should be used, and provides advice on obtaining permissions. The text is clear and well presented – and furthermore, a LOCOG spokesperson has insisted: ‘[We are] not like Big Brother. We'll take things on a case-by-case basis’. The organisation has also been at pains to point out that it wants people to enter the Olympic spirit – to the extent that it has offered advice on how organisations can have fun with Olympic themes without infringing – and has stressed that it is only concerned with unauthorised parties who wish to exploit the IP commercially. As for the Visa machines, it is worth noting that 97% of UK debit cards are Visa branded anyway – so arrangements around the brand’s exclusivity are hardly discriminating against large swathes of people.
For a Games that has drawn so much criticism over costs in a time of austerity, it seems churlish to criticise LOCOG for striving to guard the unique status of corporations that have collectively invested more than £1bn – reducing the Olympic burden on UK taxpayers by an equivalent amount.
But away from the newspaper sniping, a more tangible threat to the Games’ intangible assets has emerged – one that demonstrates that, contrary to journalists’ views, LOCOG may not, in fact, be able to protect its brands enough.
Variations on a sports theme
A worrying report from trend-tracking company Global Language Monitor (GLM) has shown that, of the Top 50 brands most associated with the London Olympics in the public imagination, 27 are not actually official sponsors of the Games. Furthermore, a recent survey of 2,000 UK adults by polling agency Opinium showed that only 10% of them were aware that BMW is an official sponsor. Those findings indicate that sponsorship alone may not be an effective means of achieving distinctiveness.
Meanwhile, the great sports-company war has presented a challenge to official sponsor Adidas. According to specialist social media monitoring group BrandWatch, Nike has used sports-themed Facebook and Twitter campaigns to establish itself as the brand most associated with London 2012, despite having no official link to LOCOG or the IOC. The company has also circumvented the need to sponsor the Games directly by backing some of the leading athletes instead. Sandwich chain Subway has achieved Olympic association by similar means – and by working sports-associated phrases such as ‘my personal best’ into their marketing materials.
While LOCOG is able to control the immediate environment around the Games sites by enforcing ‘ambush marketing’ legislation, it can defend only against the use of key protected phrases or signs – not the parallel involvement of individual companies in sports sponsorship, or sports-related advertising.
In short, LOCOG is powerless to solve the problem of unofficial brands subtly aligning themselves with the Games – the hurdle being that it is impossible to protect every single phrase, or themed marketing approach, that could remotely be associated with sports. With the breadth and variety of that subject area in mind, LOCOG should be acknowledged for making every effort to protect its sponsors, and – by extension – the stream of private funding into the event that Londoners demanded after their city was chosen to host it.
As further layers of protection appear to be unworkable, it may be left to sponsors themselves to take the initiative. Having spent so much money on sealing their partnerships with the organisers, perhaps it is time for them to develop more inventive and eye-catching advertising campaigns to distinguish themselves as bona-fide Olympians. It is clear that association, by itself, is not enough – and key investors cannot allow unofficial competitors to take an early lead in the branding marathon.