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London Olympics Goes to Extreme Ends to Protect Brands

Sterling Wong

Worse than the Communist regime in Beijing – that’s how Ad Age describes the branding restrictions that are in place in London, host city of the upcoming 2012 Olympic Games.


There is little over a month to go until the opening of the world’s biggest sports spectacle. Sebastian Coe, Olympic gold medalist and head of the organizing committee, called the games “the biggest thing this nation will have delivered in the living memory of the vast majority of the population.” Fittingly, the price tag of London 2012 is an eye-popping $14.5 billion (and counting), which far exceeds the original estimate of $3.9 billion made when London won the bid.


While the building of Olympic venues and infrastructure is funded by British public money, the cost of running the Games themselves is partly subsidized by corporate sponsorship. Major players like GE (GE), McDonald’s (MCD), and BP (BP) have coughed up nearly $1 billion to have their companies associated with the Olympic brand.


Because of the amount sponsors have spent to support the Olympics, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, or Locog, has gone all out to protect the brand exclusivity official Olympic partners enjoy.


Upholding a promise made during its bid for the Games to install strong legal protections for brands and copyright holders, the British parliament passed the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act in 2006, which gives Olympic sponsors a level of protection beyond those provided by copyright and contract laws.

Brand Exclusion Zones What kind of branding restrictions are we talking about? To start with, there are the brand exclusion zones, which extend to 1 kilometer around all the Games venues, chief of which is the Olympic Park in East London. For 35 days, no brand that is deemed a competitor of official sponsors will be allowed to advertise their wares. Even cycling and marathon routes are protected: For such road events, the exclusion zone covers two meters on both sides of the track.


If you’re planning to attend the London Games, be sure to have either plenty of cash or a Visa (V) card on hand. Besides being allowed to buy Olympic tickets with Visa cards, customers will find only Visa ATMs at Olympic sites, with the company having banned rival cards and replaced 27 off-brand cash points with eight of its own.


And for those looking to spend money on some food, chances are that they'll be spending it at the world’s largest McDonald’s at the Olympic Park. The fast food chain has banned all other brand name food at the venue. Roadside hotdog stands around Games venues will have to place stickers on any unofficial products to hide their brand names. Fellow event sponsors Coca-Cola (KO), Cadbury (KFT), Nature Valley (GIS), and Heineken are the only other brands providing food and beverage at Olympic venues.

No unauthorized logo or brand has been left untouched. In Newcastle, the Sports Direct Arena will be temporarily renamed St. James Park, while in Coventry, road signs will be amended to remove any mention of the Ricoh Arena, where soccer matches will be held. Logos on bathroom hand dryers? Those will get covered up, too. Businesses will also be barred from trying to take advantage of the Olympic brand name. The Olympic legislation passed in 2006 outlaws any unofficial “association” with the Games. This means non-sponsors cannot use images or words that might intimate a relationship with the Games. The Guardian notes that “Expressions likely to be considered a breach of the rules would include any two of the following list: 'Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve.'"

This means that if pubs in London put up banners that say something like, “Have a pint while you watch the Olympics on our flat screens,” the Locog brand police will have the authority to compel said pubs to remove them. Social Media Straitjacketing Besides on-site brand policing, Locog is also closely watching the digital space, and social media in particular, to make sure sponsors’ exclusivity is protected. Athletes, for instance, cannot upload any event videos or audio to protect the rights of broadcasters. Pepsi (PEP)-sponsored athletes like Usain Bolt will not be able to tweet or post Facebook (FB) endorsements of the sports brand between July 18 and August 15, the official Games period, since it isn’t a sponsor.

A group spokesperson said the suspension was unfair, because Space Hijackers was merely involved in "purely social commentary."

"These trademark laws are set up so that Pepsi don't infringe on Coca Cola's branding. It is not set up so Locog can stamp down on a school fete because they've got some Olympic rings on their iced buns,” he told the The Guardian.

This unprecedented level of brand protection comes after multiple instances at previous major sporting events where non-sponsors managed to upstage event supporters through clever “ambush” marketing. A famous example of this came during the 2010 soccer World Cup, when Bavaria beer hired 36 good-looking Dutch female fans to show up at a match in attention-grabbing orange dresses, stealing the spotlight away from official World Cup beer, Budweiser (BUD).


The blog Kosmograd described the London 2012 brand clampdown as an example of “just how venal unfettered capitalism can be, how its default modus operandi is paranoia, and rather than a celebration of human endeavor and athleticism, it demonstrates more that the power of branding requires such strict parameters of control that nothing can be left to chance.”

Games organizers, however, defended their policies.

"Without our sponsors, the games simply wouldn't happen," Locog said in a statement. "They provide funding, products, services and expertise to help us stage the games and with that have purchased exclusivity in their sector."

Alex Brownsell, editor of Marketing magazine, told The Guardian that he agreed with the organizers, saying that they needed to emphasize that without corporate sponsorship, taxpayers would have had to foot an even larger portion of the bill.

"Maybe Locog hasn't put across strongly enough the argument that these companies are paying for the Olympics, and if they weren't paying for it, we would be paying for it."

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