Through the Loophole

August 6, 2012 / Signed/Unsigned

By Alex Reeves

Brands have forked out millions to be official partners of the Olympic Games. But they’re fighting a strong rebel movement led by Nike.

Thanks to the London 2012 Olympic Games this is the summer of brand wars. Everyone knew it was coming. Locog and the Official Partners of London 2012 took up a strong, fortified position on one side, armed to the teeth with exclusivity and the best marketing positions money can buy. They looked like mighty overlords of the season’s advertising.

But as any military strategist knows, you don’t fight a pitched battle when your enemy has the high ground. That is why whoever came up with the term “ambush marketing” deserves a gold medal for their accuracy – because non-partner brands aren’t playing by Queensbury rules here. They’ve gone guerrilla.

With Locog on the rampage telling butchers to dismantle their subversive sausage rings and advising family-run cafés to rebrand after 15 years of trading, their public image was not exactly bright and shiny. For the non-partner brands, taking them on over audiences’ attention not only seemed like good marketing, it felt like the right thing to do.

Nike led the charge against the regulators with its Find Your Greatness campaign. Drawing on their years of ambush experience they worked out that you can make an ad about sporting achievement in London without breaking the rules, as long as it’s not that London. This leaves London, Ohio and London, Norway and East London, South Africa along with all the other Londons are fair game to advertisers who want to evoke the spirit of the Olympics.

Bookmakers Paddy Power cottoned on to this idea too, claiming on a poster campaign to be the “official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year!” A move that was bold enough, the bookies thought, to merit an exclamation mark. It wasn’t quite as daring as it at first appeared though. The billboard added “(Ahem, London France that is)”.

All they had to do for these bragging rights was sponsor an egg-and-spoon race in a small French village called London – much cheaper than sponsoring that other sporting event, rumoured to have cost brands like Coca Cola up to $100 million. But this was a risky strategy. They got into a spot of legal trouble with Locog, who ordered the ad to be taken down for breaking their ambush marketing rules. However, once when Paddy Power sought legal help to defend the campaign the committee threw in the towel.

Paddy Power got away with their cheeky stunt, but the campaign Oddbins recently launched was an all-out assault on the Olympics’ tight branding rules. And they came through it unscathed. Along with some witty ads and window displays, the off-licence promised that anyone who walks into their store showing solidarity for the non-sponsors gets a 30 per cent discount. To qualify, customers had to be wearing Nike trainers and have on their person Vauxhall car keys, an RBS MasterCard, an iPhone, a bill from British Gas and a receipt for a Pepsi bought at KFC.

Ayo Akintola, the chain’s managing director, unleashed such a vicious tirade against Locog that we just had to quote him in full. He said: “The London Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the whole of the UK’s business community to come together to support our fantastic athletes and celebrate an awe-inspiring festival of sport.

“But thanks to Locog any business without the tens of millions of pounds required to join the cabal of multinational brand partners for the Games are reduced to the status of beggars on the gilded streets of the Olympic movement.

“We have taken steps to ensure our planned window displays do not flout any of these asinine rules, but we are doing this primarily to highlight the absurdity of the fact that the British people - who are paying for these games - are at the same time being subject to ridiculous rules. Even though our window designs will be within the rules, we would not be surprised if Locog goes loco.” Right on, Ayo.

These brands are taking a stand to shake the official partners off their podium and this spirit of rebellion is all very exciting, but does it work?

Nike has proven in the past that with enough creativity and the right celebrity backing a brand can hold onto that sponsorship money. They’ve been jumping on the back of the Olympics since 1984, when they rode the glory of the Los Angeles games with an athletics-themed TV campaign that used the Randy Newman song I Love L.A.

The sports giant’s crowning achievement, though, has to be their approach to the 2010 Football World Cup. Spending the money they saved on buying sponsor status on well-made ads with huge stars like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, Nike made a huge dent in the influence of their competitors, managing to feature in almost a third of all online buzz around the tournament.

Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, worldwide users of social media have grown from an estimated 100 million in 2008 to an estimated figure of over two billion, making the web one of the most decisive battlegrounds of the branding war.

Once again we see Nike dominating. UK social media research by BrandWatch in February 2012 revealed that 7.7 per cent of Olympics chatter was associated with the brand. Adidas, with its $60 million sponsorship deal, only managed 0.47 per cent by contrast.

A quick search on YouTube provides more evidence of Nike’s online dominance. Their main ad film, Find Your Greatness, has generated over four million views in about a week. Take The Stage, the Adidas campaign, has only managed about 2.8 million hits, even with David Beckham adding to their viral offering.

Of course whether this internet “buzz” contributes to sales is debateable. But there’s no doubting that it’s something many clients will walk through fire for. With Nike leading this revolutionary ad army, one message seems to be emerging: sponsorship can’t buy you the internet, but true creativity can.

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