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The Herculean Task of Navigating IOC’s Brand Enforcement

The Rio Olympics are a hot topic right now. Every outlet from the news to Facebook is flooded with images of athletes, races, competitions, and games. Everyone is busy wishing the competitors luck and marvels at their feats of athleticism in the intense events … well, almost everyone. You may have noticed a radio silence from companies of all sizes across the Twittersphere and rest of the social media. Let’s not forget the overall absence of mentioning the athletes, posting congratulations, or mentioning the games. In fact, there’s a general lack of marketing using the iconic images and terminology of the quadrennial event outside of a few huge companies. So why is that? It turns out, the answer is a case of pretty straightforward marketing lock down. But, it’s not the end of the world. Creativity businesses can be used to boost the stakes of their social media game to work around it.

IOC’s Brand Enforcement

It dates back to the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics when Michael Johnson won gold wearing a pair of flashy, $30,000 gold-colored racing spikes that Nike had offered him. Days later, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with those same iconic shoes draped around his neck alongside his gold medals. The only problem was that Nike wasn’t an official sponsor of the Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was furious that Nike was making money without contributing to the competition.

Since then, the IOC has tightened restrictions on Olympic advertising by copy-writing and protecting the terms that fall under their domain including “Olympic”, “Paralympic”, “pan-American”, “train like an Olympian”, “let the games begin”, and “go for the gold”. The same restrictions are to be followed for imagery like the iconically linked rings, Olympic medals, the flame, flag, creed, and any historic Olympic marks too. Trademark law and a series of international laws created specifically for Olympic brand enforcement (like the Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol) allow for a total legal smack-down of anyone out of compliance with the Olympic Charter or The Olympics Marks and Imagery Usage Handbook.

All this means that only the 11 specific Olympic Sponsors can publicly discuss the Olympics and use Olympic properties. Only news agencies who pay the hefty fee are permitted to broadcast Olympic coverage. Any business trying to publicly wish luck to an athlete, or post an awesome selfie with an Olympian decked out in a medal on a company twitter account, or who uses a hashtag like “#teamUSA” or “Rio2016” are liable to legal action.

Of course, every company wants a piece of the billions of dollars of Olympic-generate revenue, and there are a few workarounds for those who can’t afford the official sponsorship fee. After a recent change to Sponsorship Rule 40, athletes are allowed to appear in advertising provided it doesn’t expressly mention the games or use and Olympics intellectual property, as long as the athlete and non-sponsoring company submitted a waiver to USOC prior to January 27, 2016 and began marketing those ads before March 27. Previously, athletes were barred from mentioning or appearing in advertising for non-Olympic sponsors for the duration of the event, even if those companies were sponsors of the athlete. This severely limited the income potential of athletes and the companies that helped them get to the games in the first place.

Companies are taking advantage of the slightly relaxed Rule 40 to launch successful ad campaigns using athletes. One such campaign is Under Armour’s “Rule Yourself,” which features Michael Phelps in one ad and the US women’s gymnastics team in another. GoPro also launched a campaign in compliance with Rule 40, running a digital video series called “Finding Missy” following swimming champion Missy Franklin and their “Two Roads” campaign, highlighting monumental moments in the lives of athletes and coaches. Adidas has also launched a very successful #SpeedTakes campaign on March 27 and has been actively posting on their YouTube channel, featuring a different athlete in each video and successfully cross posting them to social media.

Other companies are finding creative workarounds to ride the Olympic coattails to marketing success. Some have opted to use the competition theme, like General Mill’s “Rabbit Showdown”, which features rabbits (in tribute to the Trix mascot) performing Olympic sports like gymnastics and diving, and invites fans to submit videos of their own rabbits competing. The ads feature generic sports trophies rather than the iconic medals and don’t mention anything Olympic specific, keeping them clear of the IOC’s rules. Ford also alludes to the Olympics in their 2017 Ford Escape SUV ads without specifically mentioning the games, showing a guy performing on a pommel horse mounted on top of his SUV, or a weightlifter loading her SUV with boxes. The campaign is called “We Are All Fans” and uses images of fit, active, strong people performing athletic feats, but again avoids any direct reference to the Olympics.

Other companies have found ways to reference the games directly on social media without using any actual names, like Oiselle (an athletic apparel brand that sponsors Olympic hopefuls) who have referred to it as #theBigEvent on Twitter or the “South American Rodeo” on their blog. Posting nonspecific commentary on social media can be a successful route to Olympic conversation. Other companies have opted to hire individuals to post on non-business accounts and drive the conversation where they want it to go. It may also be possible to apply the creative use of emojis to publicly post otherwise prohibited content, or to hit every post with a thesaurus to steer clear of banned terminology but not the message you want to convey.

The new rules for marketing may be less restrictive, but they’re still incredibly constricting for companies who may not have the means or desire to run an ad campaign from March through August. With some creativity, companies can work around the limitations and run a successful campaign using the Olympics – or at least, using the #InternationalGreekSportingEvent.

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