The Olympic Games are almost upon us. Like most major sporting organizations, the Olympic Committee and the US Olympic Committee protect their commercial marks aggressively. That intellectual property is a huge piece of the value they sell to official sponsors and keeping non-sponsors from doing ambush marketing is a big part of any sports organization’s daily life. It becomes front and center during marquee events.
Companies find ways around this enforcement, of course. You’ve probably seen dozens of ads about “The Big Game” every January. You know they reference The Super Bowl even though it’s never said, don’t you. It’s a term the NFL tried to protect but was unable to. The USOC and IOC are just as aggressive about terminology ranging from the obvious (Olympics, Games, Medal, Rio) to the less obvious (Effort, Performance, Challenge).
Today isn’t about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Having spent much of my career selling and protecting commercial sponsorships of sporting events, you can imagine where I come out on ambushing. I do, however, have a bone to pick from the other side of my career, which is digital. I think it’s instructive for all of us.
Social media is social. Sharable. A conversation. More importantly, social media has become how many people learn and stay in touch with what’s going on in the world. Not in the USOC’s eyes, apparently. They sent a letter out last week which reinforces all of the aforementioned commercial restrictions around the upcoming games, especially with respect to athletes who may be sponsored by non-USOC or Olympic sponsors. But the letter went further.
“Commercial entities may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts. This restriction includes the use of USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.”
It doesn’t stop there. The same letter sent by the USOC reminds companies (except for those involved in news media) that they can’t reference any Olympic results or share or repost anything from the official Olympic account. I think that’s pretty far over the foul line. Social media by definition is meant to be circulated and almost any sponsor will mention “going viral” as one of their goals. How can you tweet or mention anything about the games without using a tag that’s discoverable? Why wouldn’t you want broader attention drawn to your event if it’s not otherwise a commercial message? Yes, I understand (better than most!) how sponsors try to share the brand equity of the event without authorization, but if all they’re doing is retweeting your own post, how are they sharing brand equity?
Protecting intellectual property is one of the most important things any brand or business can do. There are limits, however, and that protection should hardly ever interfere with common sense and the world of social sharing. You certainly don’t want to be seen as a bully. Do you agree with that?