June 20, 2024

So you want to be an Olympic sponsor?

Naturally, many brands do, given the major international stage of the competition. Some buy into the Olympic Partner Programme, the highest level of sponsorship that grants brands global marketing rights to the games, while some may choose to sponsor individual athletes.

That doesn’t mean those brands working directly with athletes are exempt from the International Olympic Committee’s governance: Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter lays out rules brands and athletes must follow if they want to pursue their own sponsorships during the “Games Period,” which, for the upcoming Paris games, will span from July 18 through August 30.

“Brands are already starting to put together their playbooks, to talk to their marketing teams, about what they can and cannot do,” Michael Isselin, partner in the entertainment and media group at law firm Reed Smith, told Marketing Brew. “As with everything in marketing, especially in social media, and especially something as timely and as short-focused as the Olympics, these things are fast and furious, and the marketers need and want answers right away.”

Isselin, who has advised brands on five Olympics starting with Rio 2016, shared some considerations when activating around this summer’s Olympic Games based on his experience with past Olympics and ahead of the release of USOC Rule 40 guidance for Paris 2024, which is now available to read here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What should brands in the US know about Rule 40 headed into Paris 2024?

In the US, there’s a two-pronged approach with respect to permission. The athlete has to register, and then the non-sponsor brand has to register. The important thing to remember and to think about with the US is that the brand registering actually creates a legal contract between the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the non-sponsor brand to comply with those guidelines…For Tokyo 2020, they got as specific as saying a brand that is registered for Rule 40 permission could post one singular congratulatory post on social media, and it could not use any imagery of the city, couldn’t reference the city, couldn’t reference the Olympics. But the idea is that because it’s happening during that Olympic period, everybody knows what you’re referring to.

How have brands that aren’t official Olympic sponsors engaged with the Games?

Going off what they did for Tokyo 2020…there’s a couple of different ways of going about the marketing, and there’s two different avenues of risk. Brands have to think about whether or not they want to take on the risk of not even registering with the USOC and creating that legal contract between the brand and the USOC, doing what they want to do anyway, and seeing what the consequences might be. I would not advise that, but it’s a risk assessment.

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The other is to follow those registration requirements…[In that case], the athlete is allowed to have some level of thank-you posts to the brand…Another one that they can do is business-as-usual advertising. For example, you’re engaged with a gymnast who is going to be competing in Paris, but that gymnast does a beauty campaign for you, and you’ve engaged with them for a one, two, or three-year deal. That commercial might be running on media, those ads might be getting posted on social media….There’s also the congratulatory posts that a brand can make for particular athletes.

What are some things that might happen to a brand if it doesn’t register with the USOC and posts or advertises around the Olympics anyway?

On the brand side, you could get a letter asking to take the social media posts down. I think a lot of the concern that drives these brands, often, to actually comply with those obligations—because I think a lot of brands are like, “Absolutely not, I’m not doing that”—But then, when you go in and start having that conversation about the risks involved, there is the reputational risk that is often the driving factor. It’s not just that, “Oh, well, this brand tried to quote-unquote cheat the system and get around the permission process and do this anyway,” but it is that that happened, and it impacted this individual athlete. It could impact their performance at the games, and their career as an athlete, and then tarnish their reputation as well.

Because of that, brands do get a little bit more sensitive. We’re not talking necessarily about A-list celebrities making millions and millions of dollars in movies. Sure, these athletes can be making a lot of money, but oftentimes they’re not. They’re not NFL athletes. This is very valuable to them. That reputational risk is a big red flag for brands to really think about how they should be doing it…They don’t want to do wrong by these athletes, they don’t want that reputation, they don’t want that PR damage.

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