The Olympic Games, the football championships, the Expos, they all have a brand. The Olympics have always invested in a universally renowned symbol: the five circles, paired with the symbol of the hosting Country. Expo does not have an established brand so each time this is committed to the
hosting city. The last “famous” one took place in Shanghai, right now there is an Expo going on in Yeosu (Korea), the next one will be Milan 2015.
Besides the symbol, big events are characterized by certain visual features (called look and feel) that allow (mostly) TV audiences to get a “visual idea” of the event, thanks to recurring forms and colours.
Formally, the symbol of London Olympic Games is one of the ugliest in history, reproducing the numbers “2012”. The look and feel is composed by a specially designed and highly distinguishing alphabet in red and fuchsia that pops up in every TV show. Even the uniforms of the hostesses, the volunteers and everyone working at the event are fuchsia.
As a whole, from the point of view of visual communication, London Games have been a disaster, even as far as the “brand protection” is concerned. Too many violations, lacking prevention, even if the plan was accurate. When you take care about details, you often miss the big picture, and this is what happened in London.
With “brand protection” two things are meant: the initiatives that allow consumers to distinguish products and events related to the Olympics from those which are not; the initiatives that allow investors (various categories of sponsors) to protect their investment according to the rule “I pay, thus I have the right to exploit the brand with exclusive rights”.
The protection of the brand of a major event takes place through the classical, established protection of the graphic sign, which derives from industrial disciplines (the right to protect an immaterial good such as a brand or a licence) and is disciplined by law, besides the copyright which protects the creator of the symbol (designer or artist), giving him the right to commercially exploit the sign.
This is quite well renown and concerns the basic rules of brand protection at all levels, eve when speaking about Olympic Games.
As in the case of London, a variety of signs and texts has been protected. While the Olympic five circles have always been protected in different ways, and we can say that it is safe enough, the problem concerns the brand developed by the hosting Country that has a very short life (the duration of the games), and there’s only a short time to intervene.
A big event takes place only once and lasts a number of days or months. A company brand lasts for a lifetime. For this reason, the event needs to protect itself in a more aggressive and effective way, with measures to be applied straight away. The rule is that it is useless to protect from violations and mistreatments if the event is over. Violations must be promptly caught and inhibited.
What are violations in specific? Significant violations are the ones that damage the interests of the brand users investing their money, i.e. businesses that invest on the event and employ the brand to produce objects (merchandising or actual product lines such as garments and others).
Violations that are generally not persecuted are minor (but very common), as the restaurant that decides to offer a special dish with five circles, printing on his menu the Olympic symbol. Why is it so? Simply because it’s not worth the trouble.
The users of the brand are protected through ad hoc laws when the legislator decrees that the event is of national interest for the hosting Country, so the police forces are given the necessary instruments to intervene, for example by confiscating fake goods or obscuring abusive websites.
These specific laws are very effective and applied in almost all events, to protect the licensees in the first place.
Another big chapter of violation is the illegal exploitation of the image of big events, without paying for the sponsorship. How does this happen? It is quite simple, if Coca-Cola sponsors the Olympics, spending big amounts to acquire the right to show its own brand next to the five circles, and at the same time Pepsi-Cola – which hasn’t acquired that right – buys advertising spaces (placards, papers, commercials), showing pictures of sportsmen together with its brand, it puzzles the audience who could understand that even Pepsi-Cola is an Olympic sponsor.
This troublemaking strategy is called ambush marketing, a true “sneak attack” to investors. Ambush marketing is fought through a pre-emption campaign to the sponsors on the purchase of ad spaces in the period before the event.
Which are the potential damages for the victim of an aggressive ambush marketing campaign?
Big international companies invest in major events in order to improve their global opinion, which is the consumers’ opinion about their brand. A good opinion means that when a consumer must decide whether to buy a product of a brand investing in big events, or another of a brand that doesn’t, for the same price he will go for the first one. Therefore, an excellent global opinion means sales. Recent studies demonstrated that an investment on a big event can shift the market share of a brand of 2/5%, which, as an example, means for Gillette a profit of 400 million Dollars. You can easily understand that an investment of 100 millions in an Olympic is “justified” by a potential 400 million profit. Not bad!
If an investing brand is affected by an ambush marketing operation of a competitor, the
effectiveness of the investment decreases and so the reward will be smaller or lost.
The same thing happens, in a smaller scale, in retail. Here is one example. In the central Corso Garibaldi in Milan, there is a bar attended by trendy young men who pay 10 Euros for a beer. They do so because they know that here they will meet the most beautiful girls in town, football players and other fashionable people, so they are willing to invest. The owners of the bar have invested a lot to make it attractive and to gain the reputation of a “must-be” place, but they haven’t considered the ambush marketing of a couple of Chinese guys, just opposite their bar. They have opened a tiny place, with only one window, with no sign, no name and no style, but selling beer for only 3 Euros.
These guys, famous in the city for their bangs hairstyle and their friendly attitude, make loads of money attracting the constant flow of people heading to the trendy bar. These people, who are stylish but not stupid, buy their beer at the Chinese and then drink it in the same little square shared by the attendees of the other place.
The owner of the trendy bar experiences the same condition as Coca-Cola with Pepsi-Cola which purchases ad spaces just next to the stadium. In the comparison between “predators” (so the attacking brands are called) “Pepsi-Cola” Vs. “Chinese,” we are definitely more fond of the second ones.

by Mirko Nesurini, CEO GWH Swiss SA

Read the published version in Italian here