For the first time ever, businesses and companies who are not official Olympic sponsors will be able to advertise during the upcoming 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro under the revised marketing rules set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Although several restrictions remain, the newly liberalized sponsorship guidelines mark the end of a “marketing blackout” for companies who sponsor athletes rather than the actual games, effectively allowing more brands to benefit from their Olympic connections.
In the past, under the IOC’s “Rule 40,” companies were banned from advertising anywhere at the Olympics unless they were official sponsors of the Olympic Games, which can cost up to $25 million according to Reuters. These restrictive and costly guidelines resulted in big-name official sponsors like McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Visa monopolizing the advertising space during the event. Athletes were also prohibited from referencing non-official sponsors in tweets. Additionally, non-sponsors were not allowed to feature Olympic athletes in their ads, even if they had existing sponsorship deals with the athlete.
However, in February 2015 the IOC announced changes to Rule 40 following years of lobbying by athletes and their agents who argued the restrictive guidelines deprived them of commercial attention and income during their most marketable moments. Now, under the newly revised Rule 40, non-official Olympic sponsors can now endorse their sponsored Olympic athletes as well as feature them in generic advertising campaigns during the games. However, any marketing campaigns executed by non-sponsors are prohibited from explicitly mentioning the games or using any Olympic intellectual property or copyrighted language, including the imagery of the Olympic rings and terms such as “Olympics” or “gold.” Athletes are also banned from using any Olympic intellectual property, but are now permitted to tweet about non-official Olympic sponsors.
As part of the new Rule 40 changes, U.S. athletes and non-sponsor brands had to submit waivers to the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) by January 27, 2016, detailing their marketing campaign plans to ensure their executions did not infringe on Olympics copyrights. Ad campaigns also had to be launched by March 27 in order to comply with the new guidelines.
One brand that is undoubtedly taking advantage of the new Rule 40 changes is Under Armour, who is making an aggressive marketing push with numerous campaigns centering around the games that begin August 5. While not an official Olympic sponsor, the athletic brand sponsors 250 different Olympic athletes, including Michael Phelps—one the most decorated athletes in Olympic history.
Both sports agents and marketing executives alike agree that Under Armour’s new “Rule Yourself” campaign will likely be the best case study for the new Rule 40 changes and how companies are devising creative approaches in order to connect their brand to the games.
As part of their global campaign, Under Armour created an emotional spot featuring the U.S. women’s gymnastics team as they practice grueling routines on bars, beam, floor and vault. Another “Rule Yourself” commercial features Phelps gracefully swimming through a dark pool as he trains for his last Olympic games. Both spots are accompanied by the closing tagline “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light,” which successfully complies with the new Rule 40 guideline of not using any Olympics phrasing or intellectual property. Rather, the Cannes award-winning spots simply allude to the games without explicitly mentioning them.
Also in compliance with the updated Rule 40 guidelines, Under Armour submitted the required application to both the USOC and IOC for permission to feature its Olympic athletes in their marketing campaigns and launched the campaign prior to the March deadline.
“The USOC and IOC accepted our plans, and the process was very streamlined,” said Peter Murray, Under Armour’s VP of Global Sports Marketing. “The changes to Rule 40 allow us to fulfill our No. 1 objective, which is to support the Olympic athletes and hopefuls tied to the Under Armour brand during the games.”
In addition to its “Rule Yourself” campaign, Under Armour is implementing a wide range of other marketing tactics that creatively connect the brand to the games. According to Reuters, the athletic apparel company is renting a series of outdoor gyms along a 50-mile stretch of Rio’s coastline and setting up marketing outposts that will host daily workouts for visiting fans. The brand will also be entertaining VIPs in a branded penthouse where guests will be able to mingle with Under Armour’s sponsored athletes.
While many brands like Under Armour are enthusiastically taking advantage of the Rule 40 changes, other brands and businesses are arguing that the rules are still too restrictive, particularly for small businesses.
Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle, an athletic apparel company that sponsors 15 Olympic hopefuls, told AdWeek that she is not a fan of the new rules. “The relaxed Rule 40 is a joke. You had to have submitted your campaign in January, before anybody’s qualified for anything. Then, you need to start running your campaign in March, so you don’t get any timing benefit with the Olympics. For small businesses, running an ad campaign from March through August is really expensive,” she said.
Although the new Rule 40 has its critics, analysts argue that smaller businesses and non-sponsor brands should see the relaxed Rule 40 as an opportunity to better compete with the corporate giants, as they can now have an Olympic presence for the first time ever.
Meanwhile, the traditional corporate giants and official Olympics sponsors, including Nike, McDonald’s and Visa, are questioning if the new Rule 40 changes may undermine their massive Olympic investment. However, the USOC said they have not received any complaints from official sponsors regarding how the Rule 40 changes have impacted the value of their sponsorships. “It’s a new waiver process but one we are confident in—and a process that we will evaluate post games if needed,” said Jon Mason, the USOC’s associate director of communications.
Whether a proponent or an advocate, the Rule 40 changes are undeniably forcing all brands—official sponsor or not—to step up their Olympics marketing game and come up with innovative approaches that capture consumers’ attention, as well as their hearts.
A personal salute to Under Armour for leading the way for non-official Olympic sponsors—and in fantastic style.