After the marketing controversies that came up during the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver (remember Lululemon getting in hot water for its seemingly Olympics-inspired line of clothes?) and the outcry in London around 2012’s Olympic “brand police,” there’s been a lot of scrutiny around ambush marketing at the Sochi Olympics.
Marketing gathered a few examples of what’s catching the IOC’s attention in terms of non-official branding around the Games.
• This recent commercial for Subway—not an official sponsor of the Games—features all sorts of images linked to winter sports like figure skating and snowboarding. It also features U.S. speed skater Apolo Ohno, who previously broke the record for most medals won by a U.S. Winter Olympian.
• Clothing brand American Apparel launched a clothing and merchandise line in December in protest of Russia’s anti-gay laws. The line features text from Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which includes the statement “Sport does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise.”
The Principle 6 website states “Wearing the Principle 6 merchandise will help uphold the Olympic principle of inclusion and underscore that Russia’s anti-LGBT discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic movement.” Proceeds from the clothing goes to Russian LGBT advocacy groups.
• Even before the Sochi Games started, Zippo was reprimanded by the IOC after the brand made the most during the Olympic torch relay. When the torch was blown out by wind in October, a nearby plainclothes police officer re-lit it using a Zippo lighter. The company published a photo of the incident on social media with the hashtag #ZippoSavesOlympics, but the IOC was not impressed that it had shown the logo without permission and Zippo quickly pulled down the photo.
• On the ground in Sochi, Starbucks cups have been spotted around the Olympic grounds after NBC installed a shop inside an NBC facility. Non-sponsors aren’t allowed to show their brands or have their products at Games facilities. NBC said it kept within the rules since the shop was within its own facility and wasn’t open to the public.
There’s a whole lot of grey in the area when it comes to ambush marketing. Official partners and sponsors have a legit reason to frown upon it. While they pay millions to be officially linked to the Games, ambush marketers ride the wave of consumers’ patriotism and excitement to get their brand in front of fans. And organizing committees argue that ambush marketing takes away from the value of sponsorships—one of the most important revenue streams that buoy amateur sport and the Games themselves.
But while many marketers don’t like being affiliated with the term “ambush marketing,” they do feel it is a way to make the most of the groundswell of patriotism and enthusiasm around the Olympics.