London 2012: Heavy-handed marketing rules risk doing more harm than good for Olympic sponsors

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By Diane Young | Co-founder

June 20, 2012 | 6 min read

Recommended Agency Register director Diane Young believes London 2012 organisers may have shot themselves in the foot with swingeing restrictions on Olympic marketing.

A young torch spectator clutches a Samsung flag

Yesterday at the Cannes Advertising Festival, a journalist from The Drum asked Joe Tripodi, chief marketer at Coca-Cola, about criticism around the crackdown on local retailers trying to cash in on the Olympics.

He replied that “[LOCOG’s] enforcement is appropriate given the amount of money that the sponsors are putting in".

I went to see the Olympic torch pass through a small village near where I live. Once we had avoided being mown down by the gigantic Coca Cola bus we strained to see the torch-bearer through the sea of paper Samsung flags that had been bestowed on the waiting crowds.

And a crowd there was - hundreds of people turned out to take part in their little bit of Olympic history. It was probably the most exciting thing ever to happen in Kilmaurs.

But in spite of (or perhaps because of) the vast amounts of money thrown at the event, it all felt a little cheap and tawdry.

And through it all I was quite worried about the Olympic-themed banners and signs put up by local businesses. Would they be prosecuted for trying to get a bit of Olympic fairydust for themselves? Were all those Metropolitan-Police-On-UK-Tour officers there to enforce the sponsorship monopoly?

Probably not, but the manner in which the restrictions are being applied is embarrassing for the games sponsors and to my mind, the negative publicity associated defeats the purpose of sponsoring a feel-good event.

In allowing LOCOG to control the sponsorship in the way that they have, the games sponsors have given LOCOG an astonishing sway over their brands.

I’m not sure whether it was Visa or LOCOG that suggested that tickets could only be paid for using Visa cards, but this is a sure way to alienate a massive audience. I wonder how many additional Visa card applications were made after the tickets went on sale and if it was worth the damaging impression of a brand that cares more about selling more of its cards than about helping people to participate in this major event.

The LOCOG may also have shot themselves in the foot with this one. I’d love to see the drop-out rate on the ticket sales page on the official website – I for one considered going along to one or two events but as a Mastercard holder, it was just too much effort to purchase tickets.

I sold event sponsorship for many years, and although the events weren’t anywhere near on the scale of the Olympics, the principles are the same. Events sponsors are putting something back into a community that they care about (and make money from) and seeking to start or enhance relationships. And yes, the best sponsorships involve the sponsors putting in effort themselves to stand out or engage in a more interesting way, but the event organisers also have an obligation to make sure that the sponsors don’t detract from the event, both from the event owner’s point of view and from the participants’.

The Visa deal is the equivalent to agreeing that if a paper company sponsors a design awards, all design agencies must be made to submit their entries on a certain paper – which is not likely to endear the sponsor to its target audience.

I did once have a potential sponsor lined up for a design awards, a printing company that had a specialty of printed envelopes. There was a really neat tie-up with the direct mail category in the awards, but the print guy just couldn’t see past the idea of having a category of ‘best design of an envelope’, which would have been ridiculous. It wouldn’t have worked for the awards, but it wouldn’t have worked for him, so the deal never happened.

So sponsors have to be managed delicately at times to achieve the right balance.

And as Joe Tripodi of Coca-Cola also points out, without the sponsors, there would be no Olympic Games and he is right. Without the subsidies that the sponsorship money represents, the price of participating or watching would be so prohibitive that it would be only for the elite. According to the Financial Times, the sponsorship model brings in $1billion. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many taxpayers wanting to add that to the public money already being spent.

It’s been reported that the IOC is planning to “take a step back” and re-assess the sponsorship strategy going forward. Hopefully they will be able to create an approach that affords the sponsors the credit and profile that they deserve, but which doesn’t have The Wee Bakery Takeaway in Kilmaurs shaking in its shoes in case McDonalds notices its unofficial Olympic promotion.

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