Does over-zealous enforcement of Olympic rights tarnish the games and the associated brands?

First published on IPKat.com here.

So, the Games of the XXX Olympiad also known as The Great Advertising Jamboree  London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games 2012 begin this week.  And as most people know by now, The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, LOCOG, has been given a big shiny stick by the British government with which to beat anyone who dares to try and associate themselves or their business with the Games.

LOCOG’s stick in fact comes in the shape of the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, and makes unlawful [and indeed criminal – Merpel] the use of a representation in the course of trade which is likely to create an association in the mind of the public with the Olympic Games. Essentially, if using any of the Olympic signs, “listed expressions” or just about anything else creates a commercial connection with the Olympic Games, then LOCOG will get you.This Kat has two concerns on his addled feline brain: (i) whether the zeal with which LOCOG’s stick has been brandished, as it were, has in fact tarnished the Olympic brands and the associated official sponsors, and (ii) whether the damage sustained by negative press coverage and a dampened public enthusiasm for the Olympic Games is actually greater than the damage which could have been suffered from ambush marketing.

This means those most heinous of crimes: selling a “flaming torch breakfast baguette” (now extinguished); or using a tissue paper Olympic rings window display (now blown away), can be punished by fines of up to £20,000.

During a radio debate on the BBC’s Today programme last Friday, Lord Coe, Chairman of LOCOG, was asked by presenter Evan Davis whether he was allowed to wear a Pepsi t-shirt to an Olympic event. Lord Coe replied that he could not but (after some hesitation) that he would probably be allowed to wear Nike trainers. How reassuring.

In response to that interview, Michael Payne, a former marketing director at the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, said London’s over-zealous enforcement of brand protection risked damaging the Games.  The rules were:

“never intended to shut down the flower shop that put its flowers in Olympic rings in the window, or the local butcher who has put out his meat in an Olympic display”.

During the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations earlier in 2012, the UK was covered in bunting as well as street parties as royalists [and people just enjoying an extra day’s holiday – Merpel] got into the spirit of celebration. In exchange for their colourful contribution to a country teetering on recession, the shops are reckoned to have received just over half a billion pounds in additional income.

For the Olympic Games however, retailers have adopted a far more subdued and reserved tone. As a nation of shopkeepers, we’re used to seeing great enthusiasm and excitement as a national event approaches.  The enhanced LOCOG and official sponsors’ rights have changed all that.  Instead of handing out the flags and building support for our athletes, we’re now looking over our shoulders and restraining the country in the ordinary course of celebration.  Sure, the procession of official sponsors handing out branded paraphenalia Olympic torch did the rounds but, like the British weather for much of July, the Olympic police seem to have dampened spirits and scared businesses into submission.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic Games in 1894 as an amateur competition.  Times have clearly moved on since then.  From one perspective the IOC has done well: at its simplest, the Olympic Games is now an aggregate collection of sports which, individually, most ordinary people do not really care about, mixed with enough razzmatazz, celebrities and media attention to make people think they really are fascinated as to who wins the pole vault/shooting/Greco-Roman wrestling.  But it is well packaged and attractive as a brand, particularly to purveyors of burgers, chips and fizzy drinks seeking to piggyback the fitness theme.

On the other hand, there are some quarters which resent the over-commercialisation of the Olympic Games and bullyboy tactics of LOCOG.  Will they harm the Olympic brand?  Probably not sufficiently enough to be worth considering – any damage is local to the host country and the real money is in increasing the global television audience and selling the next set of rights for more cash in four years’ time.  Will enforcement harm the sponsor brands?  Unlikely, for the same reasons and the fact that there is nothing that much really at stake to make consumers that interested in some kind of disestablishment crusade.  Ambush marketing on the other hand may divert some sales away from the official sponsors.  Which potential head of damage is greater?  This Kat has no idea but the canoeing is on in a minute so perhaps we’ll never find out.  Go Team GB [plus Northern Ireland].

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