The Real Battle for Olympic™ Gold

Athletes seek their own piece of the action amid corporate takeover of the games

Though the field is cluttered, costly and confusing, the Olympics offer a unique platform for global and regional exposure that taps deep emotional and patriotic connections. “The Olympics are a game changer—one of the few game changers,” as Prazmark points out.

In two of the best known Olympics-fueled brand revamps, both Visa and Samsung have springboarded off TOP level sponsorships since the mid 1980s to become market leaders, according to University of Oregon business school marketing professor John A. Davis, author of The Olympic Games Effect: How Sports Marketing Builds Strong Brands. In 1986, for example, Visa led MasterCard by only a few points in market share but has today leaped far ahead. And Samsung bypassed Sony in brand value in 2005. “These companies both see the Olympics as a key factor to their growth,” says Davis.

With those lessons in mind, Citigroup is debuting as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic sponsor this year, in addition to its Every Step of the Way social media campaign in which fans vote on how to distribute $500,000 to 11 somewhat lesser-known athletes and their charities. So far, Facebook users have voted 530,407 points for women’s soccer captain Christie Rampone and 533,436 for swimmer Cullen Jones, directing $5,304 and $5,334 respectively to their causes. Though the program pits Olympic hopefuls against each other vying for dollars, athletes have praised it for actually directing money back to them and their sports.

Allying with consumer feelings for flag and country is an invaluable opportunity for an image-challenged brand like Citi. Since the 2008 banking collapse, the company has been widely reviled for reckless mortgage-backed security losses leading to a $45 billion government bailout. While Citi’s early 21st century slogan was “Live Richly”—and the bank did—the Olympics promising to support athletes with ThankYou Points offers a chance to reframe from government freeloader to patriotic inspiration. As Citi’s chief brand officer Dermot Boden describes it, “Partnering with an asset as powerful as the Olympics helps to impact the popular perception of the brand in a positive way.”

To protect the value of these powerful consumer connections, corporate sponsors and government agencies have been increasingly vigilant. Since 2000, the International Olympic Committee has required host countries to pass bespoke laws to protect trademarks. The British Parliament’s special infringement law, which was voted through in 2006, is widely considered the most punitive ever, making violations a criminal offense with stiff fines.

A 61-page “Brand Protection” manifesto outlines the restrictions in London: the phrase “Olympic Games” and the iconic logo featuring the five rings are protected. So is the pairing of particular words, including “medals” and “twenty-twelve” and “bronze” and “games.” In London, there will be a strict 35-day “brand exclusion zone” enforced around all Olympic venues. Pity the hapless fan who wanders into the Olympic circle with an American Express or MasterCard. Forget priceless—their cards will be useless. Only TOP sponsor Visa will be accepted, having paid a reported $100 to $125 million for the privilege. And London organizers are hunting out violators. Former British Olympian Sally Gunnell was banned from unfurling the Union Jack in an advertising photo shoot for easyJet because competitor British Airways paid a reported $40 million for sponsorship rights.

Current and former athletes can get caught in the corporate crossfire. The USOC charter’s infamous Rule 40, for example, bars participants from directly using their status as Olympians for advertising during the games. And in London, competitors will face restrictions on their tweets and Facebook posts, though exactly how they will be policed during the first truly social media Olympics remains to be seen.

Such measures to protect exclusivity are perfectly justified, says Prazmark, because “parasitic marketing” detracts from the multimillion-dollar value sponsorships. Still, despite the fierce, punitive rules, many determined companies intend to vault over the barriers, with ambush tactics ranging from the local pub owner marketing with an innocent Union Jack to more sophisticated strategies.

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