How the Olympics’ New Advertising Rules Will Impact Athletes and Brands in Rio

Non-official sponsors can still be a part of the games

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) shook up the rules for advertising for Rio 2016 when it announced changes that opened the door for more brands to benefit from their ties to the games, even if they aren't official Olympic sponsors. While the new rules come with restrictions, they've helped non-official sponsors get a sliver of the marketing pie and changed the sponsorship landscape for the games overall.

In past Olympics, under the IOC's Rule 40, official sponsors like McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Visa had a lock on advertising during the games. Athletes were barred from tweeting about non-official sponsors, and non-sponsors were not allowed to feature Olympic athletes that they had sponsorship deals with in ads. In February 2015, the IOC announced changes to the rule, which were adopted by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) in June 2015. Those changes allow athletes to appear in generic advertising that does not explicitly mention the games or use any Olympic intellectual property (the Olympic rings, and terms such as "Olympics" "2016" "Rio," "games" and "gold" are off limits). Athletes also are now allowed to tweet about non-official sponsors provided they don't use such Olympic IP.

To take advantage of these changes, however, U.S. athletes and non-sponsor brands had to submit waivers to the USOC by January 27, 2016, including plans for advertising and social media campaigns, and ads must have been in-market by March 27.

Under Armour, which is not an official Olympic sponsor but sponsors 250 Olympic athletes, including Michael Phelps, has been one of the most notable beneficiaries of the relaxed Rule 40. The brand's "Rule Yourself" campaign includes an emotional spot with the U.S. women's gymnastics team and a Cannes award-winning spot with Phelps that shows the most decorated athlete in Olympic history as he trains for his last games. Both ads comply with Rule 40: They launched before the March deadline, and neither contains any Olympics IP.

Under Armour submitted an application to both the USOC and IOC for a waiver to feature its Olympic athletes in the brand's marketing per the Rule 40 guidelines, and the brands' social media initiatives during the games will fall in line with the guidelines, as well, said Peter Murray, vp of global sports marketing at Under Armour.

"The USOC and IOC accepted our plans, and the process was very streamlined," Murray said. "The changes to Rule 40 allow us to fulfill our No. 1 objective, which is to support the Olympic athletes and hopefuls tied to the Under Armour brand during the games."

While Under Armour has successfully capitalized on the Rule 40 changes, Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle, an athletic apparel company that sponsors 15 Olympic hopefuls, feels the rule is still too restrictive.

"The relaxed Rule 40 is a joke. You had to have submitted your campaign in January, before anybody's qualified for anything. Then, you need to start running your campaign in March, so you don't get any timing benefit with the Olympics. For small businesses, running an ad campaign from March through August is really expensive," she said.

Oiselle is considering ways to talk about the Olympics on social media that don't use Olympics IP, like creating alternative terms for the games, such as #TheBigEvent, or using its 400 individual brand ambassadors (non-Olympic hopefuls) to post about the Olympics on social media, which is allowed. "We'll get creative and find a way to recognize our athletes," Bergesen said.

Analysts think that smaller businesses and non-sponsor brands should see the relaxed Rule 40 as an opportunity. "It's still going to be hard for a small business to get a big-name athlete. It's a large investment. But there are hundreds of other Olympians that don't require that investment, and you, as a small business, can use them in any of your marketing campaigns now," said Zaileen Janmohamed, svp of client services at GMR Marketing.

The wider playing field actually could diminish the value of official Olympic sponsorships, she added. "As a non-sponsor, you still can't use the Olympic rings or Olympic intellectual property, and that's what the IOC will hold on to, but if I'm an everyday person watching a commercial or social media post, I probably don't understand the difference. If I see an Under Armour ad with Michael Phelps, a premier Olympian, I probably think they're an Olympic sponsor, too. My gut tells me that, post-Rio, the value of official Olympic partnership is going to go down, because that exclusivity goes away."

Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at NPD Group, agrees. "It wouldn't surprise me if some of these brands decided they weren't getting their money's worth. If their competitors can still run ads with Olympic athletes in them during the Olympics, that devalues the rights they pay a lot of money for."

A spokesperson for official Olympic sponsor Procter & Gamble, which will continue its successful Thank You, Mom Olympics campaign in Rio, said, "We trust the IOC and USOC will continue to protect the rights of P&G and other top sponsors."

Other top sponsors McDonald's and Visa did not return Adweek's requests for comment, but the USOC, for its part, hasn't fielded any complaints from official sponsors about how the Rule 40 changes have impacted the value of their sponsorships.  "It's a new waiver process but one we are confident in—and a process that we will evaluate post games if needed," said Jon Mason, the USOC's associate director of communications.

The rule changes force all brands—official sponsor or not—to step up their Olympics marketing game, said Dom Curran, U.S. CEO of sports marketing and sponsorship agency Synergy. "Even if you're official, you should think like a non-official," he said. "Think about all of the potential angles you could take, because your official status should really just make that better. Your campaign should be powerful either way."

Adds Janmohamed: "Now, everyone's on an even playing field, so the importance will be on great marketing campaigns, a great social campaign, a great TV spot. That Under Armour spot with Michael Phelps is great. This will force brands to come up with great concepts, and use Olympic athletes or IP in the best way possible to really capture consumers' attention." 

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.