Rio 2016: As non-sponsoring brands get more scope to cash in on Olympic fever, official partners may be getting a bum deal

Will Railton
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General Views of Maracana Stadium - FIFA World Cup Venues Brazil 2013
A large figure: Official partners are paying up to $100m to sponsor the Games (Source: Getty)

Rio 2016 may have be tainted by doping scandals, the threat of the Zika virus, and worries of violence, but if you’ve got the money, sponsoring the Olympics seems like a no-brainer. Around 3.6bn people saw at least one minute of London 2012, and Rio’s audience is expected to be even bigger still, providing the 11 Worldwide Olympic Partners – official sponsors which include Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Visa and Procter & Gamble – with a global platform.

But a recent survey by digital agency Greenlight should make for sober reading. When asked about London 2012, 18 per cent of the UK consumers polled had no recollection of brands sponsoring the Games at all.

Moreover, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recently relaxed the rules preventing unaffiliated brands from tapping into consumers’ Olympic fever, and “ambushing” sponsors.

So, with the Games underway, which brands will win big with Rio?

Official sponsors

For their colossal investment, sponsors have the right to use the Games’ intellectual property. Some have paid up to $100m to receive the right to use the iconic rings and branding on their advertising and packaging for a four-year Olympic cycle, along with having other monopolistic advantages at the venues themselves.

But there are caveats. The sponsorship assets on offer are actually quite restricted because, unlike the World Cup, the Olympics is a “clean” event. No branding is allowed at the venues and it must be kept to a minimum on the athletes’ kit.

Sponsorship is more about “top funnel awareness,” and consideration than being a direct sales driver, thinks John Scurfield, head of MediaCom Sport & Entertainment UK. Visa has found them to be “an efficient way to increase brand preference among a passionate fan base and the transaction volume that accompanies it, while extending our global reach and local relevance”, says Suzy Brown, director of sponsorships and partnerships at Visa Europe.

Even Coca-Cola, a fast-moving consumer goods brand which might be expected to see a sales uptick during the Olympics, has said that sponsorship is about establishing a long-term relationship with customers, such as retailers, and developing a relationship with individual consumers. Indeed, it actually lost UK market share to Pepsi in 2012, the year London hosted the Games.

Read more: Paralympics chiefs issue blanket ban on Russian athletes

“The ultimate goal will be to drive sales but the way in which they will do so differs considerably from partner to partner,” says Neil Hopkins, director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. “For brands such as Dow or Atos, it’s a means to showcase their corporate capabilities as well as utilising the considerable hospitality opportunities offered by the Games. For consumer-facing brands like Coca-Cola, McDonalds or Samsung, the use of the Olympic rings in advertising or on product packaging is a powerful means to differentiate them from competitors.”


But herein lies the problem. The Greenlight survey found that Coca-Cola and McDonalds were the most memorable of all the official sponsors at London 2012, with 42 and 38 per cent of UK consumers remembering their involvement in 2012. But none of the participants could recall that Acer, another official partner, had been a sponsor at all.

So many brands find ways to hijack the Olympics and tap into the global euphoria that consumers are having difficulty recognising which brands are sponsors and which are not.

The problems don’t end there. A Marketing/Interbrand survey conducted just before London 2012 found that Cadbury and UPS, which had paid comparatively little to be associated as “supporters” rather than sponsors, were more likely to be attributed as sponsors than those who had shelled out for official sponsorship.

Known as ambush marketing, brands often invest in sponsoring an individual athlete, like Under Armour is doing with 250 of this year’s competitors, or a national team, as Sky has done with the British cycling team, and use perseverance as a key theme in campaigns. As such, consumers are unlikely to either distinguish between sponsor’s content and any other brands, or care.

And this year, non-approved brands have greater scope than ever. Before 2015, a strict gagging order had been imposed on non-sponsoring brands by the IOC, forbidding them from running advertising featuring Olympic athletes for a number of weeks around the Games. Athletes were also barred from mentioning non-approved brands on social media.

Rule 40, as it is called, aims to prevent over-commercialisation and protects the exclusive access of official sponsors to the Games’ intellectual property.

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Non-sponsoring brands may have had to spend heavily in advance of the Games to build an implicit association before the moratorium began. But the savviest have found ways to flaunt Rule 40 and capitalise on consumer interest. In 2012, Beats sent its branded headphones to leading athletes, including US swimmer Michael Phelps, who were then filmed wearing them and endorsed them on social media. “Beats outmanoeuvred both the IOC and Panasonic, the Olympic sponsor whose rights covered headphones,” says Hopkins.

Olympics Day 6 - Swimming
Phelps was one competitor who was snapped wearing Beats headphones at London 2012 (Source: Getty)

In Rio, their task is even easier. Non-sponsoring American brands and the athletes they endorse, for example, will able to run ads over the next two weeks – provided that they outlined their plans for activations and campaigns on social media to the US Olympic Committee by January of this year, and ensured that this advertising was in-market by March.

Of course, this is very costly, and such brands will still be barred from using terms like “Olympian”, “2016” and “effort” in any promotions until 24 August, but many say that the benefits of official sponsorship are now diluted.

Read more: Bolt pips Neymar in our most marketable at Rio 2016 list

Creative tension

This relaxation has been partly necessary. “Dark social” platforms like Snapchat would be impossible for the IOC to police. But many welcome Rule 40’s easing as a way of guarding against creative stagnation among the 11 partners.

Official sponsors will have to be more inventive in their campaigns if they want to stay ahead of the non-sponsoring pack. Procter & Gamble, has won plaudits for its “Thank you, Mom” spot, which has received 19m YouTube views. Under Armour’s “Rule Yourself”, has been seen 6m times.

But the biggest advantages of sponsorship may not be consumer-related at all, at least not directly. Rather it’s the ability to develop strong partnerships with other businesses. Aside from amplifying its brand messaging, Visa’s Olympic strategy is to on-board key partners and vendors, thinks Robin Clarke, global head at Publicis Media Sports & Entertainment. In recent months, the firm has already helped Costco, Best Buy and United Airlines develop spots which follow from its own “carpool to Rio” advert. Like most sporting events, the Olympics may be best for hospitality.