What is the value of the Olympics brand now that relaxed marketing rules make it easier for non-sponsors?

Olympic bosses have opened the tournament to non-sponsors for the first time in an attempt to swell its reach, all but confirming the rise of the pseudo sponsors and the pivotal but controversial role they have to play.

Rio olympics

Innovative and contrarian aren’t words normally associated with the International Olympic Committee and yet that’s exactly how sponsorship experts describe its shake-up to the business of marketing for the event. Sponsors will have to share the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps with non-sponsors that have paid nothing to the IOC or national committees for Rio 2016, as long as the ads make no mention or use of any Olympic intellectual property.

This includes terms such as "Olympics", "2016", "Rio" and "Games", as well as some broader terms such as "performance", "victory" and "challenge". Other changes to the rule now allow athletes to tweet about non-official sponsors as long as they don't use any Olympic IP.

It all amounts to a relaxed Rule 40, a policy designed to avoid over-commercialisation of the Games and preserve the Olympics’ source of funding. The catch was that non-sponsors had to submit their campaigns at the start of this year, long before any athletes had even begun their qualification. For instance the USOC stated that athletes and non-sponsor brands had to submit waivers by 27 January, including their advertising and social media campaigns, and that the campaigns had to be in-market two months later. The result is that few brands have taken up the opportunity to plan campaigns in the way the IOC appears to be anticipating.

Previously, the IOC has afforded official sponsors such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Visa free rein on advertising during the Olympics and has banned brands that, while may have pay Olympians, do not give it any money. Athletes have campaigned against the lock-out for some time, and arguably this came to a head at London 2012 when many used social media to slam the fact that they weren’t able to thank brands, that in some cases had play a key role in getting them to the Games. While they still can’t do this, that the IOC has tried to cater for the individual deals between brand and athlete signals a more pragmatic approach to protecting its revenue streams.

Ambush marketing has become a firmly established rebellious playground where cunningness and insubordination are lauded and rule makers are tormented by ever agile delinquents. Take Paddy Power for instance – the bookmaker has become renowned for its irreverent and cunning approach to sports marketing. For the London 2012 Olympics, it took out a series of provocative billboards which read: “Official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year! There you go, we said it". In parenthesis underneath, the ad admitted that its sponsorship was, in fact, for an egg and spoon race in the town of London in France.

"It's a very smart move and it shows how the IOC has become comfortable in its own skin," says Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. " Ambush is going to happen anyway so I think the best thing is to embrace it and the changes will only make the Olympics bigger.

Just because a non-sponsor can use the likes of Usain Bolt in their ads doesn’t mean they’re going to outmuscle the official Olympic brands. It’s the marketers that are able to leverage partnerships with athletes that have been built up over time that sponsors need to look out for, which is why Virgin Media is confident going in the run up to the Opening Ceremony (5 August). Virgin Media and Bolt have been together since just after the London 2012 Games and director of brand communications Lloyd Page is adamant that it’s that cache built up over time that will give it the edge among a host of advertisers that will be working with the world’s fastest man this summer.

“We’ve worked very closely with the IOC and it's aware of the campaign,” says Page. “The fact that the campaign actually began in March and will run during the Olympics and beyond means it's business as usual as opposed to jumping in and trying guerrilla marketing without the right association.”

The next burst of activity will happen around the Opening Ceremony, when Bolt will be the centrepiece of activity spanning TV, mobile and social media. After that, the brand will prime its activations around the 100m, 200m and relay finals on the 15, 16 and 17 August respectively. TV will do much of the heavy lifting during these windows, backed by simulcasting on mobile and online. Virgin Media won’t be able to call on the marketing might of some of the other global advertisers circling the Games, putting more emphasis on strong content around those planned moments to spread.

One official sponsor that will be keeping a beady eye on what its non-sponsor counterparts are up to will be McDonald’s. The fast food chain says it is monitoring those campaigns and would flag them to Olympic chiefs should any flout the relaxed rules. McDonald’s has ties with the Games going back 40 years, and while it's built a formidable association in that time it would seem the prospect of effectively sharing its exclusive rights has not gone down well.

“As the official restaurant of the Olympic Games we will monitor this space and look at what we can as well as work with the IOC to manage issues that will arise as things come up. We’ve not had any issues to date,” says a McDonald’s spokesman. “We do need to act as a monitor and ensure that we’re protecting our right as a top partner.”

Fellow IOC sponsor Samsung wasn’t as forthcoming on its own stance on the matter. When asked by The Drum whether it would also be scanning to for foul play from non-sponsors, James Eadie, the company’s brand and communications director in the UK and Ireland says it is “focused on making the campaign the best we can”. Like McDonald’s, the technology giant seems to be banking on its own ties to the IOC, which date back to 1998. “We’ve been involved with the Olympics and Paralympics for quite a while now and I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue.".

John Scurfield, head of MediaCom Sport and Entertainment, is sure a more relaxed attitude to non-sponsors from Olympic chiefs is a sign of things to come. "Time and again we see brands that, through deep understanding of consumer behaviour and clever marketing, are able to elevate themselves beyond the market-leading brands and disrupt the status quo," he says. "And with the recent amendments to Rule 40 this will increase the options for non-sponsors and could over time change the face of sponsorship at events like the Olympics, World Cup and the Euros. You only have to look back four years to London 2012 to witness the explosion of a brand that few people had ever heard of before the Games began. Of course that brand is Beats by Dr Dre. In reality, the brand was unknown to many in the world. Then Beats gave athletes a free pair of headphones in their countries’ colours and became the talk of the Games."

The IOC's decision to make the changes are an acknowledgement that ambush marketing is now more fluid as a result of the advancements in social media since the last Games. While the changes may not have resulted wave of unofficial brands signing up, sports marketing around the Games will now be a far more competitive and crowded front as a result and the way which sponsorships are activated will now become more important than ever before.

To view more marketing insights into Rio 2016 visit The Drum’s Olympics hub here.

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