Let the Games Begin!

How do you feel about the Olympics? Much of the world loves them, many are bored to tears by them, and an equal many seem to hate them, for whatever reason. Personally I was in the middle category for a long time, until I discovered that every Olympics, whether Winter or Summer, do feature an event that excites me – Marketing!

As the 2010 Games approach, it seems like marketers everywhere are getting involved (even BSL teamed up with the RC Mint last year to develop their Olympic Collector Box Sets). For months (sometimes years) leading up to an Olympic Games, marketers worldwide try to get a piece of the Olympic pie. Some do it properly, like the 35 official suppliers of the Games, ranging from Coca-Cola – the official soft drink of the Olympic Games (shocking!) – all the way down to T36 Alda Pharmaceuticals – the official hand sanitizer of the Olympic Games.

But it is most entertaining when marketers go about it the wrong way. Known as ambush marketing, tons of marketers take the risk of associating their brand with the Games, despite their glaring lack of presence on the official sponsor list. Aware of this tactic, organizers of the Games are equipped with an army of legal heads whose very jobs are to catch and combat these attempts. This forces marketers to get pretty clever in their ambush.

Lululemon Athletica is not an official sponsor of the 2010 Winter Games. But recently they decided to test the limits of this technicality. In December the company introduced a winter clothing line of toques, hooded sweatshirts, and t-shirts promoted as the line for the “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 & 2011 Edition”. The products are offered in the national colours of the US, Canada, Sweden and Germany.

This attempt was met with angry faces from Games organizers, but (uncharacteristically) they chose not to sue. Perhaps they figured the effort was so overtly foolish that there was no need for further punishment. But my very favourite part of the story is when Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee Management Director (how’s that for a title) Bill Cooper was disappointed that Lululemon “has broken the spirit of Olympic trademark regulations”. The Olympics have so much spirit! Even their trademark regulations have it!

But of course, Lululemon is not the only brand in question. Roots (once an official sponsor for the Games) has released a Canada Collection clothing line that has Games officials raising an eyebrow. But it seems that they have an airtight alibi – in that their brand has been Canada-centric for years.

“It’s to capitalize on celebrating the country, which is in vogue now,” Michael Budman, Roots co-founder.

Trademark infringement of the Olympic Games is such a complex game of intellectual property that official organizers have even released an “Olympic Trademark Infringement Calculator” on their website, to clarify some of the more tricky guidelines. The Calculator scores various marketing scenarios on a point scale that determines the marketer’s likelihood to infringe.

Don’t you see? Ambush Marketing is a game full of winners and losers, triumphs and losses, success stories, and now there is even a scoring component. It is officially the best event by FAR, of the Olympic Games.

Well, that and maybe the luge.


  1. See this Brand Channel article from 2002. It presents several examples of ambush marketing throughout the history of the Olympic games: http://www.brandchannel.com/features_effect.asp?pf_id=98

  2. In February 2009, I attended The Annual Symposium for Conflict Resolution hosted by Carleton and the University of Ottawa. A prominent theme across several presentations was the unauthorized use of tradition First Nations symbols and folklore by VANOC and IOC. Some examples of these include the branding of the Inuk shuck, the 5 mascots (based on ancient legends) and totem characters.

    I find it interesting that matters of Olympic trademark infringement are handled so strictly and seriously when the IOC is turning around and commercializing some of the most pure and spiritual images/cultural representations.