The Olympic Baby

We were a little surprised when we saw the IOC was planning on reforming its Rule 40.

Rule 40 currently imposes commercial purdah on Olympians for nearly a month around the Games, preventing any use of name or likeness in association with non-Games partners. Penalties for contravention include disqualification and stripping of medals (although the reality is closer to a rapped knuckle for the superstar breaches that are the legends of ambush: Johnson, Christie, Phelps)

There’s a popular case for change. Dozens of athletes launched a Twitter campaign – #WeDemandChange2012 – during the London Games, to urge an end to the rule. Rule 40 limits the commercial potential of athletes at the greatest moments in their season or even their careers. Only the very top athletes, sponsored by official Games partners, would make real money in Olympic years.

But a change is still surprising. Not only because the IOC is a conservative beast…but because this reform is potentially … radical.

The premise is to allow pre-existing marketing campaigns based on Olympians to continue, providing they are ‘generic’ ie non Olympic. But as we saw clearly in the controversies about Scotiabank’s 2010 and Honda’s 2012 campaigns, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between ‘generic’ and Olympic marketing. The strict IP of the IOC and Games are well-protected: the marques and designations. But … mood, colours, words even.: Champion, heroic, pride… The Olympic brand is way too big to be reduced to a few protected terms.

So it’s difficult to see how ambush marketing would not be encouraged by this move. And while simple cease and desist letters are effective in blocking flagrant breaches of Olympic legislation, rights protection teams would struggle to cope with multiple negotiations of the protracted sort required by the more subtle approach of a Honda or Scotiabank.

Although LOCOG successfully restricted the ability of non Partners to use outdoor or field marketing in ambush, Games-time clutter across multiple channels is also a real risk, with the threat of Atlanta-style backlash against excessive commercialism.

But it will be the NOCs around the world who are most likely to suffer, with the dilution of their main asset. Brands will have the option to steer clear of bulky rights packages and head, instead, straight to the athletes.

And the potential is for so many brands to develop ‘non-Olympic’ campaigns that official sponsors will have to reassess the value of official Olympic turf. Or for undesirable or controversial brands to tarnish the halo of the Rings. How much did Bodog offer Tiger? Any ISFs who already accept gambling partners will be hard-pushed to take a stand when the same brands turn to athletes…

The change surely has the potential to shift the entire Olympic sponsorship landscape. Sponsors in the Olympic family will be faced with the need to develop stronger, more differentiated sponsorship propositions. The marketing landscape would be shaken up, there’s no question about that.

An apocalyptic picture. Life rarely pans out exactly as predicted, but here at Redmandarin, we’re left asking ourselves: which is the baby and which is the bathwater?