The Olympics Are a Tempting Target for Ambush Marketing

The Tokyo Olympics are nearly upon us. Major sporting events like the Olympics involve a great deal of publicity and positive mental images, which makes them attractive to marketers.

The Olympics are one of the most effective international marketing environments: they reach a billion people in over 200 countries around the globe. Extensive recognition and the attention of a global audience make the event a particularly attractive marketing environment for companies. This also means that the event’s official sponsors aren’t the only ones interested in leveraging the event’s reputation in their marketing.

The Olympic Partners (TOP) global sponsorship programme was established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1985 to create long-term beneficial corporate partnerships for the Olympic movement.  The TOP programme offers each global partner exclusive marketing rights for a specific product or service category. This means that the IOC must be able to protect the exclusive rights it grants to its partners, and as a result, ambush marketing has been a concern of the sponsorship programme from the very start.

Ambush Marketing Is Nothing New

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were the first games that were not dependent on public funding. The primary sources of income for the games were the sale of television rights and tickets as well as sponsorships. As sponsorship rights were only granted to a limited group, other companies had to come up with new ways to boost their visibility.

One of the first ambush marketing events in Olympic history was when a competing photography equipment manufacturer, which had lost the sponsorship deal to Fuji, managed to get the attention of the Olympic audience by purchasing advertising time in ABC’s broadcasts of the games. In addition, this competing company got so much attention by sponsoring the Olympic trials for track and field that many people assumed they were an official sponsor.

In the earliest forms of ambush marketing, companies tried to get exposure at the Olympic venues, a strategy that is no longer viable. For example, Reebok was one of the main sponsors of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, but many people ended up seeing the logos of competing sporting goods manufacturers in connection with the games. In order to increase their visibility, a competing sporting goods manufacturer offered sprinter Michael Johnson golden track shoes emblazoned with their logo, which ended up on the cover of Time magazine after Johnson won. The same company built a large shopping centre that it named after itself next to the Olympic village. These moves caused the IOC to pay more attention to the protection of its brand and the exclusive rights of its sponsors.

What Is Ambush Marketing?

The owner of a trademark generally has the right to prohibit other parties from commercially using the same or a similar trademark in a way that could create a false impression of cooperation between the parties. Because the official Olympic Partners pay significant sums to support the games, the IOC has protected its trademarks and drafted strict marketing rules for the games. It also actively monitors and prevents unauthorised references to the Olympics. Ambush marketing often aims to carry out marketing campaigns that are carefully designed to not directly violate trademarks, but that nevertheless understandably leave official sponsors unhappy.

Though ambush marketing has an obvious connection to the Olympics, it is often very difficult to prohibit entirely, unless the ambush campaign directly violates the rights of an official sponsor. When Usain Bolt won the gold in Rio in 2016, he took off his personal sponsor’s golden shoes and carried them around the stadium, which led to them being in every photograph. Bolt’s sponsor also flooded social media with posts linking Bolt’s gold medal to the company, despite the fact that they weren’t an official sponsor.

Situations in which an unregistered trademark is used have to be assessed on a case by case basis. Though companies have come up with ways to get around marketing rules or legislation, a great deal of this kind of marketing can be prohibited. For example, during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, a telecommunications operator created three advertisements using two South Korean Olympic athletes and the sentences ‘See you in PyeongChang’ and ‘See you in 5G Korea’. Though the ads did not create a direct link between the operator’s services and the Olympics, the Korean Intellectual Property Office found that the campaign violated the rights of the official sponsor, KT Corporation.

Invest in Sponsorship Activation

In ambush marketing, companies that are not official partners of the Olympics seek to benefit from the reputation of the Olympics. This kind of marketing creates a false, unauthorised, or misleading commercial connection between the Olympic movement or the Olympics.

Unauthorised use of Olympic symbols undermines the IOC’s ability to generate income. This is particularly detrimental to the companies supporting the Olympics and the athletes participating the games, as the IOC distributes over 90% of its income to organisations in the Olympic movement in order to support the organisation of the games and to promote the global development of sports. Securing the exclusive rights of sponsors is vital to the continuation of the Olympic movement.

Becoming an official sponsor of a major sporting event is a significant investment. Sponsors are entitled to assume that their investment will be protected and that the event organisers will intervene in and be able to stop marketing abuses of the event. The partners themselves can also have an impact on the success of their sponsorship, as the best defence is often efficient and active marketing of their own. Ambush marketing will not succeed if the official partners have effective marketing strategies in place: if everyone’s attention is on the official sponsors, there is no room for others to unjustly benefit from the event.

Official partners get the most out of sponsorship when using it as part of other marketing. Activations built around the sponsorship and logo visibility ensure that the campaigns remain in the minds of the target group. Extensive activation of the sponsorship in marketing in numerous different channels will prevent or at least hinder efforts by ambush marketers.

Shared Values the Foundation for Successful Sponsorship

When official sponsors invest in their marketing strategies and in activation, the result can be an unforgettable ad campaign that is remembered by the audience, increases the company’s sales and recognition, and creates a unique link to the values of the Olympics.

Procter & Gamble’s ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign, in which Olympic athletes thanked their mothers for supporting their dreams, is often highlighted as an excellent example of creating a bond between a brand and the event. The emotional campaign and slogan aimed at P&G’s largest target group, ‘Proud Sponsor of Moms’ made it the most successful ad campaign in P&G’s 175-year history and increased sales by 200 million dollars.

Long-term Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola launched the #thatsgold campaign, which showcased the moments when gold medals were won as part of the general Taste the Feeling product campaign. The goal was to link drinking Coca-Cola to positive moments, and this successful campaign got over 500 million social media views.

As these examples show, Olympic sponsorship is much more than just an investment, it is carefully planned diversely implemented collaboration that benefits both parties over the long term. Official and responsible cooperation promotes the values of the Olympics which also develops the sponsor’s brand and deepens the public’s trust in the brand.