Jeremy Stern: why brands should play fair at this year’s Paris Olympics

By Jeremy Stern, former European promotions director of Coca-Cola and founder of promotional compliance agency PromoVeritas.

With fewer than 150 days until the Olympic torch arrives in Paris, official partners are ready to get their money’s worth out of the games. For the majority of unaffiliated brands, meanwhile, there will be an uphill battle to comply with strict legal rules around advertising alongside the event.

Dangerous legal waters

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) protects its rights with vigour and has a history of issuing ‘cease and desist’ letters for even minor infringements. During the 2012 London Olympics, a local florist was taken to task for creating a floral display of the Olympic rings, and a butcher was blocked from creating the rings out of sausages.

First and foremost, brands must be careful of pushing too far into “ambush” marketing territory. This tends to come in two forms: ambush by unofficial association; and opportunistic advertising like inserting a brand into event-related content such as sponsoring ITV’s coverage of the event or creating fan zones where the public can watch the events.

Restrictions include: no unauthorised use of trademarks, copyrights, Olympic symbols, logos, venues, and even music is permitted. Specific rules protect the five rings logo and the “Faster, Higher, Stronger…Together” motto, alongside words and phrases including “The Olympics”, “Olympic Stadium”, “Friends of the Games” and “Paris 2024”. Even “Brisbane 2032” has already been registered.

No Tick for Tickets

Given the amount of money that is paid by major brands to be official sponsors, the level of enforcement imposed by the IOC is understandable, and it does not just focus on trademarks and logos; non-sponsors can’t use official merchandise or tickets in promotions.

For instance, a few Olympics ago, DHL in Germany offered Olympic tickets as a promotional prize, but the IOC subsequently invalidated the tickets because DHL had not obtained approval. This led to a lot of unhappy prize winners and compensation payments.

Promotions Support Sponsors – a winning partnership

It is an old adage of marketing that for every £1 you spend on buying a sponsorship, you should spend £4 on leveraging it.

One of the brands to get it right was the Cadbury’s “Win Local” campaign, which supported its sponsorship during London 2012. Almost a thousand gold-wrapped chocolate bars were distributed across the UK, with at least two bars in every single postcode in the country. Logistically challenging, but it generated a lot of local media coverage and increased sales.

On the flipside, a less successful prize promotion mechanic was run by McDonald’s in the run to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Purchase a meal and you received a game card with the name of an athlete and their odds of placing on the podium.

If your athlete won gold, you won a Big Mac, silver was fries and bronze was a Coke. However, Russia and China boycotted the games and so American athletes dominated the medals table with 174 wins, 83 of them Gold.

Huge numbers of game cards were now winners, and over 6,000 McDonalds restaurants were reported to have run out of stocks, with the company later admitting that it was the most expensive promotion in their history. If brands don’t prioritise risk management or pay attention to campaign details, they could be left with serious unexpected liabilities.

Ultimately, whether you’re an official sponsor or a brand capitalising on the popularity of the Olympic games, it is vital that you ensure legal and regulatory compliance for your promotional plans. No one likes unexpected costs or the pain of pulling a campaign.

Jeremy Stern, former European promotions director of Coca-Cola and founder of promotional compliance agency PromoVeritas.

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