World: Media Analysis - Olympics gets tougher to halt hijacking of official sponsors

By Pippa Considine,, Friday, 30 July 2004 12:00AM

Official sponsors, in spite of rule changes, fall victim to hijacks.

McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Kodak and several other names are coughing up an average of $60 million each to be key sponsors of the 2004 Athens Olympics. For this, they get various rights and privileges, including the use of the famous logo. There's also first refusal on surrounding ad space and hospitality deals at the event.

Of course, there's no stopping their competitors having a go at associating themselves with the spectacle but the rules have been tightened up. The International Olympic Committee has made it a lot harder for ambush or hijack marketing to stay within the law. Harder, but not impossible.

There are some famous examples of ambush marketing at previous Olympics.

In 1996, Nike not only bought up all the outdoor poster sites in Atlanta, but set up its own Nike Village just next to the official Olympic Sponsors' Village. More legislation was introduced, but that didn't stop the Chinese brand Wu Liang Ye liquor, which sent "cheer squads" with placards to Sydney in 2000. The Australian officials didn't register the fact that to 500 million Chinese viewers, the brand name was as familiar as Tooheys would be to the home audience.

The Olympics isn't alone. Earlier this year at Euro 2004, while Coca-Cola paid up for its official status, Pepsi - using its association with David Beckham and other players - produced a celebrity ad which deflected attention. Pringles got in on the action by running a promotion linked to Wayne Rooney.

At Athens, the IOC is trying to protect the rights of its "worldwide partners" and other sponsors. An IOC spokesperson says: "We are very stringent. From the beginning, the host country for the Olympics has a contract which includes clauses about brand protection."

There are strict rules that allow only sponsors to associate themselves with the Games. As far as possible, the host city needs to have a "clean area" around it, where billboards only carry advertising from official sponsors. There's even a spectator ticketing policy which means that people can be prevented from bringing certain items into the viewing areas. The IOC keeps a sharp look- out for infringements, both by non-sponsors and by sponsors who might bend the rules.

But, of course, there are ways of ambush marketing without breaking the rules. One of the obvious ways round the legislation is to back a team or an individual competitor. Although there are restrictions on promoting a non-sponsor within the competition, there's nothing to stop a brand draping an image of a winning athlete across a large building, or making a TV ad featuring a star team, as long as there's no overt association with the Games.

There are some brands that can do this more easily than others. Nike's ad agency is Wieden & Kennedy. In London, the agency's managing director, Neil Christie, points out that it's unsurprising if people think about Nike when they're watching the Olympics. "Nike is all about sport and it's natural for people to make an association between the event and the brand. It's a lot easier for Nike to get that connection than it is for Burger King." Burger King claims to be planning no particular promotion around the Olympics.

Many brands claim to be less interested in the Olympics and more focused on, say, football. While Hyundai is a sponsor in Athens, Ford has put its sponsorship money into the Champions League and the Sky Premiership coverage.

Pepsi backs various teams including Manchester United in the UK and individuals, such as Beckham.

For other advertisers, running a high-profile promotion at an event where another brand has bought into the established order doesn't seem too clever.

There's a risk of looking like an also-ran.

The Olympics isn't for every client. Cameron Day, the new project director at The Works, explains that the event has its drawbacks as sponsorship goes. It is celebrated as a forum for amateur, rather than professional, competition and much of the coverage is of athletics, which doesn't have the wider appeal of sports such as football or motor racing. The IOC is also difficult to work with and has a reputation in the sponsorship world as being bureaucratic.

However, the event does have undeniable advantages. Day says: "The beauty of something like the Olympics is that it covers every country and can be leveraged locally within each region or nation. It works globally or nationally."

He adds the caveat that for sponsorship to work, a brand needs to spend a lot of extra money on promotion around an event. The suggestion is five times the cost of the sponsorship. So, that's close on $300 million for Coca-Cola and its co-sponsors. Not too surprising, then, that a company such as Nike, which was a sponsor at Sydney, has reverted to plan A and has left others to take up the mantle at Athens.

This move is backed up by research which seems to undermine the commercial value of the large sums of money dished out by sponsors. After the Sydney Olympics in 2000, CIA Medialab published research showing that 50 per cent of adults questioned didn't know the names of any sponsors, even though 80 per cent had watched the Games. And a number of direct competitor brands scored equal levels of recognition.

There will undoubtedly be ambush action at Athens. Assuming that it doesn't break any laws, then allowing room for others to steal the sponsor's thunder can be seen as healthy competition. According to David Poole, the president of FCBi Europe: "The tighter the restrictions, the more creative people will have to be. I don't think corporate might should be allowed to be the only determinant of commercial success, and anyone who can exploit the gaps left by the big sponsors should be encouraged. It's the fundamental essence of competition - you don't have to outspend the competition to outsmart it."


Adidas: Sport clothing outfitter

Atos Origin: Information technology

Coca-Cola: Non-alcoholic beverages

Kodak: Film, photographics and imaging

John Hancock: Life assurance/annuities

McDonald's: Retail food services

Panasonic: Audio, TV and video equipment

Samsung: Wireless communications equipment

Sports Illustrated/Time international: Periodicals, newspapers and


Swatch: Official timekeeper

Visa: Consumer payment services

Xerox: Document publishing and processing


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