Burger King, Barclaycard, Unilever and many other global brands will find their marketing activity facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny around the London 2012 Olympic Games, as the organisers seek to stamp out ambush marketing.
Experts believe the event will be the most heavily protected in history. However, the details of the way non-sponsor brands' marketing is to be policed will not be finalised until the end of 2011, after the conclusion of a consultation due to launch in the next few weeks.
The 12-week consultation, which will form an amendment to the Olympics Act 2006, will seek feedback on potential regulations for "advertising and trading in open and public spaces" during the Games. Although the timeframe is dependent on the level of public and industry responses, it is expected that the secondary regulations will pass through parliament and become law by the end of the year.
The consultation comes after the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Brand Protection guidelines were made public last month. The 136-page document sets out a strict set of measures to combat non-sponsors capitalising on the Games through ambush marketing tactics.
Although drafted in 2005 by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog), the "technical manual" for protecting sponsors' brands was released only after two years of Freedom of Information requests, with the news breaking in The Spectator last month.
The document has raised concerns about how far the measures will go, leaving non-sponsor marketers unsure of their rights. If found in breach of the regulations, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) says a "lighter touch" will be employed, such as the removal of offending material. However, repeat transgressors could find themselves in court.
Ian Armstrong, manager of European communications at Honda, says there is a danger that marketers could fall foul of the rules, particularly as some brands work to an 18-month planning cycle. "Brands might be planning legitimate campaigns, but these could well be censured by big restrictions," he warns.
Sponsorship experts acknowledge that tighter restrictions are inevitable as London strives to avoid a repeat of the ambush tactics seen at last year's FIFA World Cup. Dutch brewer Bavaria, for example, gatecrashed Budweiser's official backing of the tournament by sending 36 women in matching orange mini-dresses to a Holland match.
David Tucker, director at sport sponsorship agency KTB, said: "It will be near-impossible for brands to carry out ambush activity without the very real threat of legal action."
One of the demands the IOC has made of Locog is that it "identify key competitors of Olympic marketing partners and monitor their advertising and promotions when possible".
Kevin Peake, marketing director at Npower, believes this could prove problematic. He cites the example of sponsors of individual events, such as British Gas and swimming. They will face restrictions for a period before and during the event, when exclusivity will be given to title sponsors alone.
While some IOC demands, such as the call for Locog to control all host-city billboard and transport advertising for "the duration of the Games and the month preceding it", may appear Draconian, the organisers are expected to apply common sense.
"The regulations are designed to counteract premeditated ambush marketing by brand-owners, not to stop people at the stadium wearing their favourite t-shirt that just happens to feature a non-sponsor's logo," explains Tim Crow, chief executive of sponsorship agency Synergy.
Alex Kelham, brand-protection lawyer at Locog, says the measures are vital to the success of the Games. "If we don't get sponsorship money, we won't be able to put on the show we want," she adds.
The DCMS is playing down any uncertainty facing marketers, stating that the regulations will apply only within a few hundred metres of the venues and last for one day preceding the event and its duration. However, with 26 venues across the UK – 18 in London – and regulations also applying to event routes, such as the marathon, this will be no small area to police.
The consultation document, expected at the end of this month, will give clearer insight into Locog and the DCMS' plans. The issues up for discussion are likely to include the balance between protecting sponsors and 'business as usual' for other companies.
Marketers should ensure they are part of that debate. With the spirit of the Olympics in mind, you have to be in it to win it.
Ambush marketing (IOC definition)
All "intentional and unintentional attempts to create a false or unauthorised commercial association with the Olympic Movement or the Olympic Games" is considered ambush marketing. This includes a non-partner company's use of creative means to generate a false association with the Olympic Games and a non-partner company's activities that intentionally or unintentionally interfere with the legitimate marketing activities of Olympic partners.
How London 2012 can protect sponsors, according to IOC rules
- Identify key competitors and monitor their advertising and promotions when possible.
- Deploy brand-protection teams to monitor ambush marketing.
- An aerial plan for London 2012 is needed to stop non-sponsored presence within the airspace above Olympic venues.
- Monitor spectators' clothes or accessories for ambush marketing.
Source: IOC Brand Protection