Did the Olympics 2012 branding laws go too far?

It’s arrival was hailed as an opportunity to generate tourism and increase economic activity across the UK, so there was no doubt that London 2012 was a once in a lifetime opportunity for businesses to rake in the benefits, so why did it end up causing no end of grief for businesses across the UK?

With the likes of Adidas and Coca-Cola paying copious amounts of money for the privilege of becoming London 2012 official partners, the IOC (International Olympics Committee) created branding laws in order to preserve the exclusivity of these world renowned sponsors. The sole aim of this committee was to ensure no one was using the Olympics brand unless they had paid huge amounts of money for the privilege. Not only had the IOC created a protective layer around the word Olympics, the Olympic symbols and the Games’ mottoes, they also created a legislation against unauthorised association, banning non-sponsors from using images or wording that may suggest a close link to the Games, preventing the unauthorised use of words such as ‘London’, ‘London Twenty Twelve’, ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Bronze’ and, most ludicrously, ‘Summer.’ Dubbed by critics as the ‘Brand Police’, the IOC then had the authority to impose whopping great fines of up to £20,000 on anyone that engaged in such activities.

Understandably, many felt that these stringent restrictions placed on athletes, viewers, businesses, charities, your dinner and your dog had spiralled out of control and if anything, limited economic benefits. Also, the idea that multinational giants such as Visa and McDonalds needed protecting is somewhat slightly farfetched, seeing as they were already guaranteed unrivalled publicity regardless.

It all began when fans were restricted to using a Visa card in order to purchase their tickets. If you didn’t have a Visa card, it became virtually impossible to enter the ticket ballot. Fans were forced to send a cheque covering the full cost of the ticket ordered, the cheques were then held for months before it refunded the cost of the unsuccessful applicants. So if you weren’t lucky enough to get tickets and wanted to enjoy the games in the comfort of your local pub, you may have faced difficulties actually finding one as pubs had been banned from displaying signs inviting people to “Watch the Olympics here,” or even to “See the London games here.”
Those lucky Visa owners who managed to bag themselves tickets faced further restrictions once inside the Olympic Village. Who knew your wardrobe choice for the day would be so vital as reports emerged that those who dared to attend the games in a Pepsi T-shirt would have been sent packing, because Pepsi was not an official sponsor. However there was some good news for those label lovers out there, as Olympic supremo, Sebastian Coe reassured people that Nike trainers would ‘probably’ be allowed through security, despite not making the list of official partners.

It was even reported that the ‘brand police’ were patrolling the bathrooms of the Olympic venue armed and ready to remove or tape over any logos, including those imprinted on soap dispensers, wash basins and toilets. It seems there really was no mercy.

Not only did these branding laws affect the general public and non-sponsor brands, it seems local businesses were most badly affected. In an attempt to show their Olympic spirit, a small, family run florist was told to remove the Olympic ring design they had created and placed in her shop window or she would face being sued by drinks giant Coca-Cola as it was classed as unauthorised use of the Olympic brand.

Cafe Olympic in Stratford was also threatened with legal action, the owner however took matters into his own hands when he faced with the prospect of a £3,000 fine and re-branded his cafe to ‘Lympic Cafe’ by simply painting over the ‘O’.

Possibly the most outrageous example is that of an 81 year old knitting fanatic, who became the oldest victim of the ‘branding police’ when she was forbidden from selling a £1 hand-made doll at her local church due to the small ‘GB 2012’ motif she hand-knitted on the dolls t-shirt.
Shockingly, the IOC, even threatened legal action against an event called the “Great Exhibition 2012” due to its use of “2012,” although the complaint was later withdrawn.

Some of these examples may seem farfetched, but they are all examples of the extremes these ‘branding police’ would go to, but did they go too far in protecting sponsors?

So where do you draw the line on branding? Businesses that simply wanted to show their support for this patriotic sporting event unsurprisingly deemed the actions of these branding laws as an attack on the Olympic spirit. If they were not engaging in fraudulent activity then should local shops, pubs and charities not have been able to make money from the games as well, considering the estimated £16.5bn of GDP that was set to be created for the UK economy?

However, with costs that soared to over £11bn, London 2012 was not a cheap affair. So did they not have the right to police these laws in order to preserve the exclusivity of their sponsors paying millions for exclusivity?

Brands are always trying to remain current, and as the second most valuable brand in the world (Source: Brand Finance) associating themselves to the Olympics would have no doubt created a positive feeling in the mind of the consumer. So it was no surprise that businesses up and down the country tried to capitalize on the hype of this epic event. However, if such loose association to a brand could run the risk of breaching brand protection laws and possibly costing you your business, is it really worth it?

With so much ambush marketing around the Olympics it seems that maybe the main issue behind this back-lash was the lack of education on what constitutes as a trademark infraction.  So if you’re planning future campaigns based around the World Cup in 2014 or the Rugby World Cup next year, make sure you do your homework on their branding laws. And if like many businesses out there you simply don’t have the budget to sponsor such events, it’s time to get creative in your approach.