How the Olympic Committee fights against trademark erosion

by | Aug 15, 2016 | Branding, Entertainment, Sports

On top of the attention the IOC is receiving over its ban on Vines and GIFs, the Olympic Committee is also receiving criticism during these Games for its rules regarding trademark usage in hashtags.

But some say the measures are necessary in order for the Olympic organizers to fight trademark erosion of the Olympic brand, a brand that is constantly being co-opted by non-official companies looking to ride the Games’ coattails.

Letters have been sent to non-sponsoring companies insisting that they take down posts containing hashtags like #OlympicGames and #Rio2016. It’s an issue Stephen Colbert has already weighed in on, with his creative alternative to the  #teamUSA hashtag:

Under the IOC’s Olympic Charter’s Rule 40, sponsors of the Olympic Games have exclusive rights to the use of “Olympic Properties.” These properties include trademarked words, phrases and images associated with the Games such as “Olympic” and the image of Olympic Rings, but also phrases and tags like #Rio2016 and “Road to Rio”.

Beyond the IOC’s charter domestic laws such as The Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act in Canada and the US’s Patriotic and National Observances, Ceremonies and Organizations protect these trademarks. They also offer protection to nation specific Olympic trademarks, such as ‘team Canada’ and ‘team USA’.

Mark Penner, an intellectual property lawyer with Fasken Martineau, says “People who pay fees to the IOC to be able to use these marks are fairly – some people say ‘aggressive’, in terms of protecting the marks and making sure they’re used properly.”

Some may call the IOC’s efforts “aggressive,” but Penner explains that these efforts are done to protect those who sponsor the games – along with policing the eventual trademark erosion that occurs when a mark is misused by others. As he puts it, “they’ll make sure it’s only the people who have paid for the rights – you know, the sponsors and everybody else – so that others can’t use what’s called ‘ambush marketing techniques.’”

Ambush marketing occurs when advertisers connect their brand or product with an event even when they’re not an official sponsor. In the case of the Olympics, ambush marketing works “to create in the viewer or consumer an affiliation with the Olympics when they’re really isn’t one or when they haven’t paid for it,” says Penner.

According to Robert Klara of Adweek, fear of ambush marketing is one reason why the IOC is so protective of its trademarks. The moment that really set the IOC against ambush marketing, Klara reports, was a move by Nike in the Summer Olympics of 1996, when Michael Johnson was photographed in the Nike shoes he wore in the Games.

Thanks to this campaign people began to believe that Nike had sponsored the Games, when in fact Reebok was the official sponsor that year.

Thankfully for you and I, the IOC doesn’t have the authority to prevent individuals or news sources from using the Olympic trademarks in hashtags. And why would they even want to? Attention from fans and news sources help drive excitement for the Games.

It’s only those companies who stand to make money from associating their brand with the Olympics that are barred from using these hashtags.

But that hasn’t ceased the flow of criticism targeted at the IOC. Companies who sponsor athletes throughout the year are included among those speaking out against the IOC’s  tactics:

Say you don’t want to challenge trademark legislation like Rule 40, but still want to get in on the buzz from the Olympic Games? There are things you can do  that don’t involve breaking any laws. Here are some suggestions that won’t earn your company a letter from the IOC:

Use themes, not trademarks

The trademarks only apply to the list of phrases, words and symbols associated with the Olympics. If you avoid these, you’re unlikely to get called out for misuse of trademarks, and there are still plenty of words and phrases out there that are fair game.

Nothing’s stopping you from linking your brand or company to themes related to the Games. Concentrate on linking to themes such as fandom, patriotism or sport in general. These general themes aren’t off-limits, and are still likely to generate more buzz during the Games.

Get creative with animals and animations

Some companies have been getting really creative during the Games. And while your company may not have rights to images from the Games, you don’t necessarily need them: Create your own Olympic-like images by using animals and animations. Companies have used depictions of these characters participating in Olympic sports to draw attention to their brands:

Kitten Summer Games ad by Hallmark

Finally, consider Hallmark Channel’s Kitten Summer Games. All through August the channel will show kittens competing in sports like gymnastics, track and field, volleyball and wrestling.

Nowhere does Hallmark mention the Olympics, but clearly these kittens are competing in games similar to the Olympic athletes.

So don’t let your lack of access to hashtags and trademarks get you down. Take advantage of these creative ways to get in on the hype without getting a cease and desist letter.

trademark erosion ad

Chantelle Brule
After receiving her Master's in Communications from Carleton University, Chantelle brought her research experience to Agility's Media Insights team as a data analyst. She's particularly good at what she does.


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