A One-Stop Guide to the Perplexing World of Olympics Marketing

What brands and sponsored athletes can and can’t say, wear and do

Getty Images

Getty Images

As the Winter Olympics draw near, it’s natural to swell with a little national pride and take to Twitter with a message like, “Good Luck to Team USA in the Olympics at Pyeongchang!"

But if you’re tweeting on behalf of a brand, well, better think twice.

Don’t mention “Olympics” or “Team USA.” Actually, it’s best not to type “Pyeongchang,” either. In fact, even “good luck” might get you into hot water.

Why? Because of Rule 40, a bylaw in the Olympic Charter that restricts public references to Olympic competition solely to sponsors that have paid for it. Because the Olympics are expensive (the Rio Games cost over $13 billion to stage), and since sponsorship revenues ($848 million, again for Rio) go in part toward paying for them, the International Olympic Committee is eager to protect the value of the sponsorships it sells. If you’re going to get any takers for a basic $100 million four-year sponsorship deal, you’d better offer some exclusivity with it.

This is why Olympic partner brands pretty much enjoy carte blanche when it comes to their advertising and marketing efforts during the games and why everyone else, including the athletes, doesn’t.

But just because a brand isn’t Cola-Cola doesn’t mean it can’t get a boost from the games—just that it needs to be careful. The U.S. Olympic Committee issues many pages of guidance on the do’s and don’ts of this stuff. We read through everything, and compiled the crib sheet below.

ATHLETES

Many athletes competing in the games have established sponsorship deals with one or several brands. But once the games begin, they need to be careful about what they say, wear and do.

They Can:

Share their experiences at the games via social media

Share their own photos or videos

Use Olympic symbols, so long as they’re not in a commercial context

Nod to the brands that sponsor them or appear in generic ads for those brands, so long as there are no overt references to the Olympics or use of Olympic terminology

They Cannot:

Post or talk about their personal brand sponsors or mention any branded products

Mention or promote any organizations they support

Post photos or videos of the actual competition

Wear any branded apparel that isn’t official on Olympics property

OFFICIAL SPONSOR BRANDS

These are the brands that shell out big bucks for either a worldwide Olympic partnership or an official partnership for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. Official sponsorship is expensive stuff—$100 million for a four-year cycle is the oft-reported figure—which is why only megabrands end up signing on the dotted line. For Pyeongchang, these include GE, Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald’s and The North Face.

They Can:

Advertise while the games are in progress

Enjoy exclusive advertising within their market category

Mention the games on social-media platforms

Use the word “Olympics” and related terms and symbols that go with it

Supply their goods and services on an exclusive basis within Olympics venues

They Cannot:

Conduct any advertising or promotions that haven’t been preapproved by the USOC

OTHER BRANDS

Brands that are not official Olympic sponsors but still have standing relationships with athletes participating in the games (“non-official sponsors” in IOC parlance) may do a limited amount of marketing—if they’re careful.

They Can:

Run marketing campaigns that feature the likeness of the athletes they sponsor, so long as they make no overt or implied reference to the Olympic Games and provided they have obtained USOC approval

They Cannot:

Engage in “ambush marketing,” basically any attempt to create the false impression of an official relationship with the games

Launch a new campaign while the games are in progress that features an athlete who is competing, even if no mention of the games is made

Use any official terms like Olympic(s), Olympic Games and Olympiad(s)

Use terms that even suggest the Olympics, depending on context, including:

  • Victory
  • Games
  • Medal
  • Bronze
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Pyeongchang

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