Recent news has drummed into us that Olympic sponsorship may in fact not be worth the investment. Big brands have invested up to 80 million pounds (120 million Aussie dollars) just to be criticised – not to mention confused with non-sponsors. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) vehemently defends its strict regulations on the grounds that official sponsors must be protected and allowed a ‘clear run’, especially around the Olympic venues.

On one hand, what LOCOG overlooks is a basic tenet of branding: it’s all about the consumer. While they may believe they are in fact protecting the official sponsors by harshly regulating marketing and advertising, they may in fact be pushing consumers away from the very brands they are striving to help. Visa, for example, is struggling to put a positive spin on the ‘greedy’ label it has received after any other brand was blocked from becoming an online credit or debit card ticket payment option at the Games, as well as the only acceptable card at Olympic events. Thanks to a situation in which brands are essentially shoved down consumers’ throats inside official Olympic venues, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are feeling similar effects. Only last week, news broke that McDonald’s has told the organisers to ban 800 food retailers at 40 Olympic sites from serving chips with their meals. The sponsorship obligations meant that only fish and chips have been spared the prohibition (not even the Olympics dare ban the national dish).

The evolution of the brand monopoly ethos seems to have rid Olympic sponsorship of the very foundation of the games: competition. What LOCOG really needs to do is realise that if they ran the games like they are running marketing regulation, each event would feature just one star athlete – which doesn’t leave much doubt as to who would win the gold. Adrenaline will be surging, sweat will be dripping, and hearts will be pounding in the arena. The same cannot necessarily be said for the marketplace.

To make matters worse, an ‘ambush ban’ has been declared to run from now through to the middle of August. Just in case anyone is tempted to try it on, an army of 286 purple-clad Brand Police (aka ‘stewards’) will be on the prowl at Olympic venues, armed with masking tape to cover up offending logos which may be deemed direct competition to an official sponsor.

Consumers will resist what is pushed in their faces and resent lack of choice. However, when these same consumers are offered competing brands, they thrive – they are able to make the decision, and provided they engage in a positive experience with the product, they will develop loyalty. Then brands win, too. A brand which has a monopoly during the Olympics will surely profit – it’s common sense that without choice, spectators will indeed buy their product. But what has not been taken into account is the post-game effects of such pushing. Will consumers use Visa during the games? Without a doubt – because there’s no alternative. Will they resent Visa once they return home? They just might.

However, in oversimplifying the concept of ‘audience’, this general argument ignores the population that actually makes up the viewing public: those at home. Arguably, just the relatively small number of around a million who will actually attend the Games in person. How about the remaining billions worldwide? If your brand marque can be seen in some capacity by all of those people watching their TV and cheering on their national team, what’s a £20,000 (AU$30,100) fine in the scheme of things? And, you might just think about the fact that by default, you are possibly aligning your brand with the category leader as main sponsor – not a bad idea for many brands aspiring to reach gold medal status.

At a local level, in-your-face sponsorship may upset the million people who purchase tickets and personally attend events in Olympic venues. However, looking at a more global level, this same sponsorship doesn’t seem quite as negative. In fact, it may pay out in the end. With the title of ‘Official Olympic Sponsor’ comes incredible publicity: your brand mark is seen billions of times over on a range of touch points. An American family watching the women’s gymnastic final won’t feel the annoyance of having been forced to purchase their tickets with a Visa or the lack of ‘chips’ in the arena outside of McDonald’s – they will, however, recognize the Visa logo behind prized US gymnast Gabby Douglas as she nails her floor routine.

This summer should present billions around the world with an opportunity to celebrate sport. At first, we are prone to ask if is all this draconian protectionism really in the spirit of the Olympics. Have we, in fact, lost sight of the foundation of the Olympic games, that which is sportsmanship and competition? However, these questions arise from an oversimplification of the concept of consumer. The majority of Olympics audience members won’t be poolside, courtside, or trackside in London, and thus, perhaps official sponsors have outsmarted us all. We forget that as we name-call and hurl insults, the very brands we target steadily engrain themselves in our lives and our minds alongside billions of viewers worldwide.

At day’s end, Olympic sponsorship may offer the greatest brand advice possible: know your audience.


Andrew Eyles
BY Andrew Eyles ON 27 July 2012
Andrew Eyles is CEO and founder of Blue Marlin Brand Design, an independent integrated brand design consultancy with an international network of offices across the UK, USA, Australia and Asia.
  • Lynton Pipkorn

    Andrew there are some major flaws in your understanding of Olympic sponsorship.
    ALL Olympic events are considered clean venues, so you will not see the Visa logo behind prized US Gymnast Gabby Douglas as she nails her floor routine.
    You will however see plenty of VISA communications, on site activations and glocal promotions featuring their Olympic status.
    The key to Olympic sponsorship however is not actually being associated with the Olympics at all, but actually leveraging the Olympics for the passion that audiences feel and integrating this into your brand communications to connect and more effectivley engage with your target market. What it is all about is how do we use this sponsorship to help us be more relevant to our target markets. Your job as a sponsor – your job as a marketer – is to make your brand a part of the customers’ story, not the brand’s story. To understand their needs and demonstrate how your brand fits with their functional, utility and emotional needs. It’s to demonstrate an alignment with your customers’ and potential customers’ priorities, values and motivations. Sponsorship is not about badging an event, or broadcasting your brand’s personality by being known as an Olympic sponsor. It’s to amplify the relevance of your brand to people’s lives, to showcase your brand’s alignment to what those people care about, and to add real value to whatever experience they are trying to have at the venue, in London, or at home on the TV. This will help change perceptions and influence behaviour – the only neccessary outcome.
    Your arguement about exclusivity also doesn’t hold up. The AFL, NRL, Cricket etc all sign exclusive deals with Coke and Fosters etc, and people accept that they can’t get a Pepsi or Hahn at the football, that is how it works with commercial rights, you pay a premium to get that pourage exclusivity and sometimes also the ability to lock out a competitor at the venue with signage and brand activities etc.
    The Olympics may well be sport, but it is also very big business, and business sometimes cannot be fair to all.