Olympic sponsors hope the game's up for ambush gang

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The Independent Online
COCA-COLA, Kodak, Visa, IBM and the other official sponsors at the Winter Olympics, which opened yesterday in Lillehammer, Norway, will be looking over their shoulders as they go for the commercial gold - watching out for 'ambush marketing' by unofficial rivals.

Ambush or parasite marketing occurs when a company that has paid nothing to sponsor or associate itself with an event attempts to cash in on it through cleverly phrased promotions or advertising.

The official Olympic sponsors contribute as much as dollars 40m ( pounds 27m) each in financing, products and services over the four years of their sponsorship deal. In total, sponsorship is expected to contribute dollars 800m over the period covering both these Olympics and the summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US.

The International Olympic Committee fears that the activities of these ambush marketers could undermine legitimate sponsorship and jeopardise future funding.

For Lillehammer '94, the IOC and local organisers have worked to strengthen the sponsorship packages by protecting exclusivity. The IOC has developed a tightly controlled global sponsorship package called The Olympic Programme (TOP), while banning advertising in stadiums or on athletes' clothes. Organisers have now created marketing programmes to ensure the event is both financially secure and free from commercial clutter.

A limited number of exclusive TOP sponsorships has been sought, one from each key product category. Sponsors can weave the event into a range of marketing activities and promotions. And they may use the five-ring Olympic symbol. The current group of global TOP sponsors are Bausch &Lomb, Coca-Cola, IBM, Kodak, Matsushita, Time, Visa and Xerox.

The effectiveness of Olympics sponsorship is not in question. 'We believe that the Olympic Games are the most respected sporting event and that the internationalism they promote is something that can be good for (our) world trade,' says Malcolm Greig, IBM's marketing communications manager.

In an awareness survey conducted by JSL Marketing of Lucerne, Switzerland, more than half the respondents said they believed Olympic sponsors to be the best in their fields, socially responsible, dedicated to excellence and on the leading edge of innovation.

'Clearly, the fewer the number of sponsors the more visible (is) our sponsorship,' Mr Greig says.

American Express is one company that has consistently marketed aggressively at the time of the Games, competing head-on with the official Games sponsor, Visa. It has run themed promotions. At the Winter Olympics in 1992 a French advertising campaign focused on the Games; according to the IOC marketing department, the organising committee had it withdrawn.

But policing ambush marketers is tricky. While certain activities, such as unauthorised use of the Olympic rings, are obviously illegal, others (such as supporting a local sports association that is sending a team to the Olympics) are not. The IOC has launched an educational programme to explain what is and what is not allowed. And it requires host cities to take on responsibility for policing. The IOC also pursues offending companies through the courts. Yet, to a certain extent, its hands are tied.

As a result, it is essential that the sponsor should fully exploit its association: for every dollar spent on sponsorship, an equal amount should be spent on exploiting it, says Mr Greig. 'It is essential for us to ensure that our own (marketing) activities make sure there is no confusion in the minds of our audience,' he says. The same rule applies to any sponsorship, marketing experts believe.

'As long as clients understand the rights they are buying, there shouldn't be a problem,' says Matthew Wheeler, joint managing director of the leading sponsorship consultancy Alan Pascoe Associates.

So long as a sponsor fully understands the nature of the deal, it can make ambushing pointless. 'You can't close every door,' says Mr Wheeler. 'But as long as you make the rights you own work hard for you, an ambush marketer can only ever come in second-best.' This is one reason why the Olympic sponsors are confident that with IOC support they can beat their unofficial rivals.

(Photograph omitted)