The IOC: The Bully on the Playground

Every two years, the olympics bring together the world’s premiere athletes to compete in the spirit of sportsmanship and international cooperation, but are today’s games being tarnished by brand authoritarianism?


Every two years, the olympics bring together the world’s premiere athletes to compete in the spirit of sportsmanship and international cooperation.

In last week’s installment Is the Olympics Tarnishing its Brand Medal?, we detailed a series of brand missteps leading up to and throughout the 2016 games. From the ways the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was policing mentions of their brand on social media and other online channels to the repressive lengths the IOC brand was going to in order to “protect” its interests, the ramped up enforcement speaks to a brand that’s being run by aging governmental oligarchs rather than modern-day brand ambassadors. Force-fed commercials, delayed coverage, enforcement of Rule 40, inconsistent channel deployment, and off-base and outdated commentators are not the making of a gold medal brand. While these elements alone won’t bury the Olympic brand, the collective hits do dig the hole a little deeper for the IOC.


In this week’s edition, we take a deeper dive into the blunders the Olympics were criticized for during Rio and what those mean for a brand in transition. While Monday Morning Quarterbacking is common following any large sporting event, in order for the IOC brand to reengage with fans around the globe and remain relevant to a new generation, it must listen to its critics and view these missteps as opportunities to recover its brand image and shift its approach. The reality today is that these well-publicized errors are only going to be amplified in the growing years, as the demands for brand cohesion and channel alignment mushroom. Generational shifts continue to drive how brands connect with their consumers, and if the Olympic brand wants to avoid the ‘has-been’ label, they need to reevaluate and respond, quite quickly, to these brand criticisms.


The Brand Police

When the primary word being used to describe your brand activities is one of a bully, you know you’re in trouble. No one likes bullies. Mean kids on the playground aren’t really that much different from mean adults in a boardroom. Bullies take cheap shots, pick on those smaller than them and use their size and influence in an effort to control what others think and say about them. The activities of the IOC leading up to the Olympic Games in Rio were nothing short of bullying behavior. The organization managed to take a group of people who were genuinely excited about celebrating the Olympics with other fans and turn them into #Haters. IOC’s enforcement of Rule 40 or trademark law that, in a few words, basically prohibits athletes or unofficial firms from participating in conversations around the Olympic brand in almost every way imaginable. While the use of the term bully may sound dramatic to some, those on the receiving end of the cease and desist letters would likely agree with our assessment.

IOC’s enforcement of Rule 40 prohibits athletes and unofficial firms from participating in conversations around the Olympic brand”

In an article in July, the BBC detailed the lengths the IOC is going to in order to control its brand, stating, “Ahead of London 2012 they even briefly banned those working on the opening and closing ceremonies from buying chips because McDonalds had signed an exclusive sponsorship contract to be the only chip retailer in the park. But since then, new regulations have allowed them to go even further in their quest to guard and control everything surrounding the Olympic image. In 2013, the first US applications to trademark hashtags started being submitted. And while it’s impossible to stop ordinary people talking about the event online using registered hashtags, it is now possible to restrict what companies do.” You heard that right; the USOC sees social media conversations as something they can control by owning the rights to words used in spontaneous conversations on social. To quote a humorous esurance commercial about the social media era, “That’s not how it works; that’s not how any of this works.”

Since 2013, the list of off-limits words has only ballooned even further and includes words like effort, performance, challenge, and summer. Seriously, the USOC thinks it can own the word summer. From the perspective of the USOC with support from the IOC, they are just protecting their brand image and partner companies that pay billions of dollars to support the Olympic brand. According to the BBC, the IOC stated that, “Our aim is to protect the integrity of the Olympic symbols, the Olympic Games, and the investment of our official partners. Without the revenue and support of our broadcast partners and official marketing partners the Olympic Games would simply not happen.” For any company, wanting to protect the integrity of the brand is completely understandable, but the USOC’s efforts go well beyond a well-intentioned brand projecting a positive image to one of a domineering parent looking over their kid’s shoulders to police everything they’re doing.

Suppressing Sponsors 

What consumers remember most about the Olympics aren’t well-crafted commercials or product placements. What has always been the most memorable Olympic moments are  the heroic efforts, athletic triumphs and personal stories inherent to the games. Those stories are often defined by what happens leading up to the games – all the training, sacrifice and outside support it takes to get to the Olympics – not necessarily what happens during the competition itself. Nick Symmonds, a returning U.S. Olympian, has spoken out against Olympic Rule 40 because of the strict limitations the rule has put on his ability to show appreciation for his sponsor’s support. According to Symmonds, “It cheapens the investment that the sponsors have made in that athlete, if I go out to Rio and Brooks [Nick’s sponsor] has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to get me there, it’s my obligation to thank my sponsor.”


For sponsors like Oiselle, the running brand assists athletes for the whole four-year cycle when attention is minimal, meaning that when the games hit, the company wants to not only capitalize on their not insignificant investment but also cheer on the athlete they’ve spent years building a relationship with and supporting. Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle, brings up another thorny issue, saying, “We estimated that it costs about $300,000 to get an athlete to the Olympics, and the USOC contributed probably about 1% of that cost. So in my mind, we’re more of an Olympic sponsor than they are at this moment. They might have a beautiful stadium, but if it’s just about beautiful stadiums and no athletes then I don’t think very many people would come and watch.”

…But if it’s just about beautiful stadiums and no athletes then I don’t think very many people would come and watch”
– Sally Bergesen, Oiselle Founder & CEO

As intimated by Bergeson, the Olympic brand is equally owned by the athletes who compete, not just the IOC rule-makers and bureaucrats inking multimillion dollar sponsorship deals for the two-week event. Brands, like those supporting the athletes as they train for the Olympics over the course of years, have the ability to identify and develop the deeper, emotional connections between their brands and the consumer watching the glorious games unfold. The IOC could be part of that emerging drama and outpouring of support for the athletes, if they’d allow these brands to tell their stories. As stated on the IOC’s website, “The IOC is committed to building a better world through sport.” One wonders how that mission could square with the organization’s activities relating to only promoting the speech of those who pay billions to promote their brands, while squelching other voices that actually do live the mission of building a better world through sport.

Creating Conversations

We often talk about the importance of having a cohesive communication strategy that aligns messaging across channels, but rather than orchestrate every conversation that other companies are having about your brand, today’s best brands let conversations unfold organically and encourage spontaneous dialogue around their brands; you want as many people as possible, including other companies, talking about you, unprompted and undirected. Stifling those authentic conversations, while simultaneously boosting the commercial conversations of your sponsors, turns what should be a two-way discussion into a never-ending infomercial and an unwelcome sales pitch. Ever savvy, today’s consumers engage by personalizing their experience with brands. The more individuals and companies say about a brand, the bigger the footprint the brand has. The overarching brand image of the Olympics doesn’t come from the IOC and their official broadcast and marketing partners; it comes from the spirit and excitement surrounding the games, bubbling up from fans, athletes and yes, other companies.

In our next and final installment, we’ll address the convergence of social conversations around #Rio2016 and NBC’s broadcast coverage, which coalesced to create a multiplatform perfect storm of mismanagement and miscommunication, creating real-time problems for the Olympic brand. Let us know your thoughts about the Olympic brand and what you loved and didn’t love during this year’s games. Use #IOCbrand to join the conversation.

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