Medaling in Olympics Marketing

With all eyes on the Summer Games in Rio this month, businesses of all sizes are smart to think about ways they can leverage this international stage. However, marketing around the Olympics is a sport in and of itself that requires discipline and a clear understanding of the rules that govern it.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) are very strict when it comes to non-sponsors using trademarked terms like "Olympic," "Rio 2016," and "Summer Games" in any commercial context without their permission. This right is reserved for huge corporations like McDonald's, Visa and Coca-Cola, who pay hundreds of millions of dollars to be official sponsors and market their products in conjunction with the Games. 

It is believed that this tightening of the rules stems from the 1996 Atlanta Games when sprinter Michael Johnson sported his trademark gold Nike running shoes. The $30K spikes were given to Johnson by Nike. Of course the shoes became just as much of a story as Johnson and were widely photographed, becoming an icon of the Games. Johnson was even on the cover of Time, the shoes draped around his neck with his multiple medals. Marketing gold, right? The problem was, Nike wasn't an official sponsor and their tactics angered competitor Reebok, who had reportedly paid $50M to be an official sponsor.

So, the IOC and the USOC cracked down. They implemented Rule 40 to guide marketing and advertising around the Games. It basically says that anyone who participates in the Olympic games (coach, trainer, athlete, official) cannot let their name or photo be used for advertising during the games without the consent of the IOC during the blackout period, which begins about a week or so before the Opening Ceremony. This includes a Tweet or Facebook post that thanks a sponsor for their support. (Note that many athletes wouldn't make it to the Olympics without the help of their sponsors.)

For the Rio Games, the IOC attempted to loosen the regulation by saying that companies could apply for a waiver by the end of January 2016, but this wasn't much of a concession as most qualifying events for the Games hadn't occurred yet and companies didn't know which athletes they'd be sponsoring. The blackout period remains in place (this year’s runs from July 27 to August 24) but for the first time, non-sponsors can now run ad campaigns during the Olympics that use their athletes—as long as they don’t overtly link it to the Olympics. Again, they can’t use words like “Olympics,” “Summer Games,” or even generic words like “games,” “gold,” or “Rio.” It’s not unlike the rule during the Super Bowl that non-sponsors cannot say “Super Bowl” in their marketing. Instead, they use phrases like “the big game.” 

Many see the relaxed Rule 40 as an opportunity. Smaller companies will still find it nearly impossible to partner with a big-name athlete like Michael Phelps or Simone Biles, but there is a large pool of lesser-known Olympians that don't require a big investment. Feed Media client, Detour, sponsored athletes for the London 2012 Games and the Sochi 2014 Games. Detour decided to target Olympic hopefuls who were a good match for their protein bar's brand. For the Summer Games in London, they sponsored a then-unknown soccer player named Megan Rapinoe (who became a gold medalist), swimmer Matt Grevers (who won two golds and a silver in London) and decathlete Trey Hardee (who won silver). Up until the blackout period, the athletes posted video clips talking about Detour bars. They shared photos of themselves with the bars. We conducted interviews with them that were published on the Detour website. We blogged about them and their events during the Games. And, of course, we watched with heightened interest when they were on the pitch, in the pool and on the field in London.

At the Sochi Winter Games, Detour partnered with slopestyle skier Nick Goepper and snowboarder Arielle Gold. Again, this low cost investment allowed Detour to be a part of the Olympics fever and associate their product with the world's best athletes.