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 Protecting the Olympic Brand

Protecting the Olympic Brand – a most valuable asset, but for whom?

June 28, 2012

With the Olympics approaching, one slightly less predictable aspect of the games has been attracting attention: intellectual property. Just like other businesses, the London 2012 Olympic Games has a brand it is keen to protect. The London 2012 site refers to the brand as the Organising Committee’s ‘most valuable asset’ and claims that its use needs to be controlled so as to maintain ‘both the emotional and commercial value of the brand’

Doctor Nicola Searle, writing for the IPKat contrasts the need for control of the branding rights as a mechanism to guarantee sponsor exclusivity and attract funding, with the value of the Olympic logo and signs as ‘freely used cultural symbols which form part of the feel-good intangible benefits’ of the games. What should be an important goal for the Organising Committee, the encouragement of community spirit, a country united, seems undermined by strict protection of the Olympic brand in this way.

The Problem of Ambush Marketing

Some argue that such a draconian approach has lead to a weakening of the Olympic spirit. Long associated with the bringing together of people of all nationalities in heroic sporting endeavours, the borderless, level playing field of the Olympic Games just doesn’t seem to fit with strictly enforced exclusivity when it comes to the symbols people use to talk about it, where big companies with sponsorship deals can enjoy the brand but myriad smaller business owners are locked out from a national event that may never reoccur in their lifetime.

Techdirt blog post offered sobering insight into the extent of the efforts made to restrict use of the brand by highlighting the case of an 81-year old woman selling a doll clothed in a sweater donning the Olympic logo for just £1 at a church sale. Joy Tomkins was warned off selling the doll by trading standards, who advised that she would commit an act of infringement by doing so. Her reaction was one of disgust, having assumed ‘the hoops symbol was universal’

Still, the problem for the Olympic brand is ambush marketing, whereby other businesses who have not sponsored the games find ways to bolster their advertising, sometimes by use of the Olympic symbols. This has always been a problem for sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup. With global sponsorship of the Olympic games in the tens of billions, if ambush marketers are not kept in check there is a risk that pockets might not be so deep as time goes on. Large events like the Olympics rely on sponsorship for funding. When other businesses use the brand in their marketing, this could reduce the value of the exclusivity paid for by sponsors.

Olympic symbol is universally recognised

With the Olympic symbol proving to be ‘the most recognised symbol in the world’, and in light of the immense coverage and prestige of the games, it is unsurprising that brands would want to associate themselves with this event.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) have taken steps to ensure not only that their brand is protected under a combination of copyright, trade mark, and design rights, but also that it is a criminal offence under special purpose statute to market or sell goods using any logos, symbols or words that might associate unauthorised businesses with the Olympics. The Olympic rings, Paralympic agitos, the Olympic podium and words or phrases associated with the Olympics, including ‘Olympic’, ‘Spirit in Motion’, and ‘Inspired by London 2012’ are all protected. On top of this a combination of certain words, such as ‘London’, ‘2012’, ‘Games’ and ‘Twenty Twelve’ in marketing campaigns can also lead to trade mark infringement. (See BBC for a complete table of restricted words)

Nike’s IP lawyers can find ways around the rules

Despite strict regulation, already certain companies who have not paid to become official sponsors are benefiting from the Olympics. For example, as reported by UK digital agency the Jam, Nike is the brand most associated with the upcoming Games, over Adidas, the official sponsor of the event. This might be the result of their #makeitcount social media campaign promoting Nike-sponsored British athletes, and is also likely due in part to their advert featuring two Olympians. Crucially, simply featuring Olympic athletes in their campaign does not infringe Olympic IP. So despite the comprehensive measures it has taken, LOCOG still faces difficulties in controlling and policing all marketing efforts that hope to benefit through an association with the games.

The FT cites London 2012 as being the ‘first truly digital games’, and the growth of social media has only made it more difficult to protect the Olympic brand than ever before, despite Twitter and Foursquare lending their support to help enforce exclusivity. Simon Chadwick, professor of sports business management at Coventry University gets to the crux of the matter at the FT, explaining that ‘social media is a very, very difficult area [in which] to control the dissemination of information – it’s very fast-paced and hard for rights protection officers to track and monitor what is happening before it has already happened’. Clearly, management of the Olympic brand is a complex issue. Ambush marketing threatens to eat a hole in the pockets of the organisers that are doing their best to give the nation an experience it will never forget, and even with strict control, specialist legislation and proactive enforcement it is still a battle to guarantee sponsors the exclusivity they are willing to pay for. But this exclusivity sits uneasily with the otherwise inclusive nature of the festivities, and there is certainly an argument to be made for allowing the public freedom to use Olympic symbols in their own way. Is it fair to restrict the opportunity to show support for the games to businesses who can pay? Wouldn’t it put a smile on your face to pick up a bite to eat from the Olympigs roast-pork stall? Officials have said they understand some unauthorised uses are just down to ‘pure enthusiasm for the Games’, and suggest they will take a pragmatic approach. It’s a difficult balancing act, and we shall have to see whether this controversy will start to fade as the events get underway, just one month to go!