Why Ryan Lochte might unintentionally be the best ambush marketer from Rio 2016

Ryan Lochte, Ambush Marketer

Thanks to the International Olympic Committee easing restrictions in so-called Rule 40 – at least in part to make it easier for athletes to publicize existing relationships with brands that might not sponsor the event, enterprising non-sponsor brands had an opportunity to participate in conversations tied to the 2016 event – albeit with caveats.

But unlike, say, Nike stealing Adidas’ thunder at the 2014 World Cup, there wasn’t a particularly memorable brand ambush in Rio.

Except, of course, maybe for "that swimmer."

And if Ryan Lochte’s personal brand did indeed inadvertently hijack the conversation, it was clearly for all the wrong reasons. At the same time, Lochte is now firmly entrenched on a redemption tour, so perhaps he’ll eventually make for an interesting case study in reputation management. Dancing With the Stars seems a bit predictable though. What’s next, Ryan? Rehab for sex addiction?

And this isn’t even a good apples-to-apples comparison. Which just goes to show that despite the opportunity, non-sponsors did not capitalize.

Decidedly ambush-free

Nike is one example of the potential for non-sponsor brands at sporting events like the World Cup. Other brands like Newcastle Brown Ale have also attempted ambushes – although admittedly on a smaller scale. In Newcastle’s case, it was the 2014 Super Bowl and, for bookmaker Paddy Power, it was perhaps most notably/relevantly the 2012 Olympics in London.

However, in hindsight, there wasn’t a particularly notable ambush in Rio, unless, as noted, you count Lochte.

Kyle Bunch, managing director of social practice at advertising agency R/GA, agreed there have been plenty of examples of successful brand ambushes, but not this time around.

“The reality is that it’s so well publicized and big organizations like the IOC are looking to protect their sponsor relationships, so they make little loopholes to make brands play,” Bunch said. “I would have loved to have seen more creativity – and we might over time see more creativity and the rules get more relaxed, but I didn’t see any big hijacked moment.”

Meh

In fact, Bunch did not seem overly impressed by the rule change overall, saying, “Rule 40 in most ways was doing nothing at all,” and, he noted, “It was the least the IOC could do.”

Further, Bunch called the rule change a “step in the right direction, but a small step” because of aforementioned stipulations like applying for waivers so early brands weren’t necessarily sure their athletes would even qualify for the Olympics.

“There were some examples like Under Armour with Phelps that were able to take advantage, but I’m not sure it was a game changer,” Bunch said. “Outside of very specific situations, it really didn’t create a wellspring of opportunity.”

And, according to Mike Sundet, senior vice president and director of sports and entertainment at brand experience agency Momentum Worldwide, the intent behind Rule 40 is “great” in trying to protect sponsors and “increase the value of the Olympics as a property to be associated with,” but it is “not the silver bullet that will come in and save sponsors from other people that tread on their territory.”

‘Big winner’

According to Google analysis of ads for the Olympics, Nike’s Unlimited series – which showcases athletes like Sister Madonna Buder, Chris Mosier and Kyle Maynard – was the “big winner” overall with 34.4 percent of respondents able to recall them. Coca-Cola, Tide, McDonald’s and Samsung rounded out the top five brands in terms of recall rates, Google added.

Nike, which sponsors the US Olympic Committee and Team USA’s medal stand outfits, was also a “winner” when the most decorated Olympian of all time showed up on the cover of Sports Illustrated in Nike pants. Although, as Bloomberg explained, it may have been less of Phelps thumbing his nose at sponsor Under Armour than a genuine mistake as a result of confusion about what he was supposed to wear to which event – or he simply didn’t have time to change beforehand.

Wins and losses

Nevertheless, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank was likely less excited about the August 22, 2016 issue of SI than, say, Nike CEO Mark Parker. Meaning Under Armour sort of emerges from the 2016 Olympics with a win and a loss.

Meanwhile, Bunch said the IOC will now potentially have to respond to disgruntled sponsors who bought in on a premise of exclusivity that was chipped away. And the key moving forward will be capitalizing on new ways to serve sponsorships via digital innovations, he said.

“It’s like what the NFL is doing with Twitter – the livestream is a way to create a new opportunity in exclusive sponsorships [as consumers are] shifting behaviors of how they watch games,” he said. “[It yields] opportunities to offset the current model.”

Indeed, streaming means more feeds and “just a lot of new ad inventory,” Bunch said.

“I absolutely expect to see brands continue to find ways to disrupt, to hijack and to own the moment,” Bunch said. “We will see that, but it’s probably less likely to come through whatever loopholes the IOC [creates] and more [through] ways to innovate and do things that skirt those [rules].”

In other words, we only have two short years to wait for a potential livestream ambush in PyeongChang.

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