By Robert Klara
Unless you happen to be a company like GE, Coca-Cola or McDonald's—a brand that can afford the reported $100 million to $200 million it costs to be an official Olympic sponsor—you'd better not mention the Rio games in your marketing.
As social-savvy marketers have quickly learned, the U.S. Olympic Committee has ironclad regulations, backed by U.S. trademark law, that restrain nonsponsoring brands from saying anything even vaguely evocative of the Olympics. A casual mention of Rio on Facebook? A congratulatory tweet to a gold medalist? Even tweeting the term "gold medal"? Don't do it.
"There's a good chance they'll come after you, especially if you're using what they consider their intellectual property," said Jim Andrews, svp at sports and entertainment marketing agency ESP Properties. "Most brands don't do it because it's not worth the risk." The IOC reportedly has a pack of lawyers waiting to pounce on any brand that runs afoul of its rules.
But have you ever wondered how those rules got so ridiculously tight?
The IOC has zealously guarded its trademarks for decades, of course, but if there was one tipping point, it happened 20 years ago, during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. And on July 29, 1996, two pieces of history were made—the athletic kind and the marketing kind.
A Golden Opportunity
That afternoon, sprinter Michael Johnson took the gold in the 400-meter dash after finishing in 43.49 seconds. Tall, muscular and graceful, Johnson blew past his competitors as though they were standing still. Adding to the mesmerizing effect were the gold-colored shoes that Johnson wore on the world's fastest feet—a $30,000 pair of lightweight racing spikes given to Johnson by Nike.
Not only did millions of TV viewers see those Nike shoes on their screens, millions of Americans saw those same shoes slung around Johnson's neck a few days later on the cover of Time. It was hard to imagine a more successful piece of marketing for any Olympic sponsor.
Except for one little problem: Nike wasn't an Olympic sponsor.