It’s less than a year until the Games commence and the official sponsors are already gearing up to make a splash. But does trouble lurk in the water, asks Helen Gilbert

The countdown to the London 2012 Olympic Games has begun and Britain’s team of elite athletes are already working overtime to make sure they’re in tip-top condition ahead of next July.

But it’s not just the athletes who face stiff competition in their efforts to strike gold.

Big-spending official sponsors of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, such as Coca-Cola, Sainsbury’s, Cadbury and Procter & Gamble, are thought to have paid at least £80m apiece for their patronage of the events. They too will come under intense pressure from guerrilla or ambush marketers looking to hitch a ride on the coat-tails of the Games for a pittance as they are all too aware.

“It can jeopardise the future of international sporting events as it can discourage sponsors from continuing with their investments if their rights of association are not safeguarded,” Craig Smith, vice president of marketing and strategic planning at Coca-Cola Enterprises, goes so far as to claim.

Irwin Lee, vice president and managing director of P&G UK & Ireland, echoes his views. But is guerrilla marketing as serious a threat as they fear? And if so, what’s being done to counter it?

In the past, Games organisers have gone to great lengths to protect their official partners from the ploys of rival companies. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy, a no-fly zone was imposed across the Alps to keep out guerrilla advertisers and during the Sydney Olympics stadium staff confiscated cans of Pepsi because Coca-Cola was one of the official sponsors.

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P&G recently ran in-store promotions through major retailers giving consumers the chance to win tickets by purchasing any P&G product. Over the next 14 months, the company will give away 5,600 London 2012 tickets 90% of its UK corporate ticket allocation to mums and families in the UK. 

Coca-Cola is a presenting partner of the Olympic Torch relay. This month, it launched on-pack communication for its London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Future Flames nomination campaign. Ticket giveaways and London 2012-related promotions linked to Powerade and Glaceau Vitaminwater brands will be run later in the year. 

Cadbury has invested £50m in motivating the nation to play games through It launched a limited-edition Challenge Bar last summer, with games such as thumb war and finger football printed on the inside of the wrapper to encourage consumers to get involved and play against their friends. 

Sainsbury’s has launched a Paralympic Games shopper, with proceeds from the sale of this bag going towards its Paralympic legacy fund which supports Paralympic athletes. It is also sponsoring all Paralympics coverage broadcast on Channel 4.

These hardline tactics haven’t deterred some non-official sponsors from trying to cash in on the exposure a global sporting event can give them, however. Dutch beer company Bavaria received extensive publicity when more than 30 models employed by the company wore bright orange dresses at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, stealing limelight from the official sponsor, Budweiser. The story made headlines around the world and illustrated how simple it was to flout the rules and how huge an impact such a campaign could have.

“The fact that ambush marketing has on occasion overshadowed the official sponsors shows how big a threat it can be,” says Shireen Peermohamed, a partner in the intellectual property and advertising groups at law firm Harbottle & Lewis. She cites another infamous example: “Polls suggested a significant percentage of people thought that American Express was sponsoring the 1994 Winter Olympics when it ran a campaign saying Americans did not need a visa to go to the Visa-sponsored Games.”

There have been plenty of other flagrant sabotage attempts. In 1996, Reebok was the official sponsor of the Games, but Nike purchased billboard spaces near the venues and handed out team flags with its logo on to spectators, stealing Reebok’s thunder. And in 2008, Chinese sport star, Li Ning, wore shoes from a sportswear line he had founded as he lit the Olympic Torch, when the official sponsor was Adidas.

For next year’s Games, the official sponsors are putting their faith in the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) to deal with potential threats. “LOCOG’s responsibility is to protect our sponsors’ investment and to preserve the long-term value of the Olympic and Paralympic brand,” says Alex Kelham, a brand protection lawyer in LOCOG’s legal team. “Where there is a concerted attempt to ambush the Games, we will take action.”

The committee will take a “proportionate approach” to any breaches, she adds. “More often than not, issues can be dealt with by a phone call and discussion, but if appropriate we will take formal action where needed to protect the funding of London 2012.”

Regardless of potential sanctions, Peermohamed points out that there will always be someone willing to go down the guerrilla marketing path, be it a competitor of an official sponsor or another business simply seeking publicity.

“Businesses that associate their brands with the Olympics run the risk of falling foul of these provisions. It is important to bear in mind that they will apply not only to large-scale ambush campaigns, but to any advertising or marketing,” she says. “If found to be in breach of these provisions, businesses may face civil penalties, including an injunction to stop their campaign and damages. A criminal offence may also be committed in certain circumstances.”

Unfortunately, the damage is often done by the time action is taken if action can be taken, that is. Inevitably some companies will try to push the boundaries of what is allowable and some will get away with it or take the view that even if they are punished, the rewards outweigh the risks. Nick White, a partner at sports law specialists Couchmans, identifies a growing trend among more risqué brands to make fun of the legislation itself.

The cheekier the stunt, the more effective. “During the Winter Olympics in 2010, the Canadian brand Lululemon launched a clothing range called ‘Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011’, ensuring it avoided using any of the specific protected expressions such as ‘Olympics’, ‘Vancouver’ and ‘2010’ and winning itself significant PR benefits,” he says. “This sort of marketing is on the up and event organisers and official sponsors need to be wary of responding in a way that only creates more publicity for the brand engaging in it.”

Instead of engaging in unseemly spats with the guerrilla marketers, they should ensure that their own campaigns are robust enough to mitigate the efforts of any interlopers, believe experts. Which is exactly what they’re trying to do.

The investment and potential rewards are too great to be distracted by the threat of guerilla marketing, says Lee. “We’ve seen the positive impact connecting consumers with the P&G brand can have. This was demonstrated through our sponsorship of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, which delivered an estimated $100m in incremental sales, 30% higher brand recall amongst consumers and 37% higher message recall from our brands’ advertising.”

Coca-Cola’s Smith is of a similar mindset. “London 2012 will play a key role in energising CCE’s ambition to unlock the £1.4bn incremental headroom we have identified for soft drink sales growth across Great Britain,” he says.

Official treat provider Cadbury is equally confident that its sponsorship won’t be compromised. Susan Nash, trade communications manager at Kraft Foods, says she expects it to generate “a fantastic ROI both in terms of sales and also in building deeper relationships with its consumers, customers, communities and other stakeholders as well a creating opportunities for its employees to be involved”.

To help retailers exploit the 2012 Games, Cadbury is offering a series of tips called ‘Twelve Steps to Success’. The first instalment is titled ‘Warm Up’ and covers the main facts retailers need to know such as start and finish dates, ticket information and geographical details. “It’s never too early for retailers to get started and think about how their stores could maximise this opportunity,” says Nash.

The Olympics may be the flagship event targeted by guerilla marketers, but in recent years awareness of the Paralympic Games has risen significantly, thanks in large part to the success of British Paralympians, such as gold medal-winning swimmer Ellie Simmonds.

The prospect of non-sponsors trying to hijack the event is seen to be slim, because of the potential for bad publicity. Sainsbury’s is certainly not unduly worried. It plans to run a series of high-profile events, including a ‘One Million Kids Challenge’, to encourage one million children across the country to try out a Paralympic sport in the months leading up to the Games. “We will use our network of stores to help promote the Paralympic Games and make Paralympic Games and Paralympics GB merchandise available across the UK,” says Jat Sahota, Sainsbury’s head of sponsorship.

This is not to say that it will only be the likes of Sainsbury’s or indeed the guerrilla marketers that benefit from the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Alexia Robinson, founder of British Food Fortnight (BFF), has deliberately brought forward next year’s event to coincide with the Games.

She is keen to ensure local businesses enjoy their fair share of the spoils by cashing in on the patriotic fervour. “Given LOCOG’S branding restrictions, giving retailers the chance to participate through patriotic food promotions seems an obvious opportunity,” says Robinson.

Retailers are being invited to run promotions, offer tasting sessions and highlight new products, as well as decorate stores with bunting and ‘Love British Food’ point of sale material. LOCOG has also invited BFF to run a programme of ‘Family Feasts’ as part of its London 2012 Festival.

Needless to say, LOCOG won’t adopt such a benign approach to ambush marketers. Guerillas in the midst be warned.

Advertising regulations The government recently consulted on plans for temporary restrictions that would apply for a limited time during the Games.

These restrictions cover advertising and trading in open spaces within a few hundred metres of the venues and road race routes. Billboards, posters, flyers, giveaways, projected advertising, moving and aerial advertising will all be covered by the regulations, but standard shop signage and in-store advertising will be exempt.

The regulations are expected to pass through parliament after the summer recess. LOCOG is also tasked with policing advertising to ensure it meets the rules of the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, which prevents businesses creating an association between their goods and services and the London Olympics. This association can extend to words, images, sounds, symbols and mottos.