David Atkinson, managing partner, Space
David Atkinson, managing partner, Space
A view from David Atkinson

Think BR: Olympic trespassers keep out

Can the official sponsors of the 2012 Olympic Games keep fans onside and win the battle against ambush marketers, asks David Atkinson, managing partner, Space.

For Olympic sponsors, we’re approaching the moment where their investments are coming under the greatest scrutiny, and where observers are looking to question their legacy and whether they will be able to look back on London 2012 with pride.

While Locog and the IOC have looked to protect corporate investment in the Games via strict and combative rules to eliminate would-be ambush marketing, the brand protection tactics now being pursued by officials on behalf of sponsors could risk a consumer backlash - flying in the face of any commercial objectives to increase and nurture brand equity. 

Not so long ago guerrilla tactics from unofficial sponsors were treated like a bit of a joke, with the world media lauding the efforts of those outside of Official status using 'David versus Goliath' storylines. 

Just over ten years ago during Euro 2000, the clever and anarchic drink brand Tango was allowed to get away with a campaign tagline which said 'Officially a drink during Euro 2000' despite the fact they clearly flouted trademark rules.

But over the next decade everything changed. Sports sponsorship became bigger business and guerrilla tactics were taken much more seriously, as brands demanded greater protection against unofficial activity to safeguard their increasingly eye-watering investments. 

No-one should blame sponsors from using every angle to defend their sponsorships, such is the significance of their involvement. 

Realistically, these big global events could not happen without them. And yet the public rarely congratulate sponsors for their passion, commitment and support.

There were some key factors that changed all this: a series of decisions by sponsors, event organisers and governing bodies that started to reshape fans perceptions of participating brands. 

At the 2003 Cricket World Cup, Pepsi (one of the event’s four commercial partners) insisted that stewards search fans’ coolboxes for rival fizzy drinks

Likewise the 2006 World Cup saw a group of men stripped of their Bavaria Beer branded orange lederhosen and forced to watch the match in their underpants after FIFA officials declared that competitor branding was disallowed, thus protecting Official Sponsor, Budweiser. 

Greater scrutiny and negative publicity for sponsors was to follow, with many seeing the big finals turning into corporate suit-and-tie events rather than for real fans. Should bottles of water be taking from fans as they enter a stadium because they are not official drinks sponsors? 

Should ticket buyers be forced into applying for a new credit card if their existing credit card doesn’t allow them to buy tickets?

Rules that were originally designed to protect sponsor’s rights were now being criticised for restricting consumer freedom and choice. Research by Space has revealed a mood of suspicion among fans who see sport being taken further away from the people and into the arms of the corporates.

So what can we expect from the 2012 Olympics? Already there’s news of Visa banning rival cards from the games and that toilets, sinks and soap dispensers at events are having their logos covered up. 

Those brands that are wary of the excesses of sponsor privileges should be encouraged, as should those who are committed to creating a longer legacy of their association with the Games.

Of course with these Olympics being heralded as the first truly digital Games, all the official brands will have to work harder for hearts and minds. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will be awash with Olympic content, both official and unofficial. 

Despite all the means at the disposal of sponsors, including threats of litigation, this could become a battle that just can’t be won. 

Personally I’d like to see brands stepping away from the barrier of protection to earn recognition on their own merits. 

After all, success at the Games won’t be measured simply in terms of eyeballs, logo views or even Facebook Likes, but through brand love from sporting and Olympic fans who endorse their overall contribution to the event.

 David Atkinson, managing partner, Space