Why the Olympics Brand Police Might Help British Business

22/07/2012 20:54 BST | Updated 16/09/2012 10:12 BST

The news that British companies running unauthorised, Olympics-themed promotions face fines of up to 20K is drawing widespread, if somewhat predictable cries of indignation. The object of this ire is the 2006 Olympic Games Act, a piece of legislation designed to protect sponsors who are paying many millions of pounds to be associated with London 2012.

It's easy to stoke up a general sense of outrage when a country that prides itself on free speech proscribes the use of words like 'Silver', 'Gold' 'London' and 'Summer' are proscribed, but the act is fairly draconian. Those infringing sponsors' rights risk prosecution, no matter who they are. Even a local pizza parlour inviting customers to "Celebrate London 2012 with our gold medal meal deals" could find itself charged by one of the 300 government-appointed enforcement officers.

However, in reality this legislation is not unique - FIFA insists on much the same the from World Cup hosts - and it is temporary: an unfortunate requirement of hosting these kind of events, which organising bodies are well placed to demand.

But the whole issue does pose two very interesting questions: do the sponsors really need this level of protection? And does the sort of advertising they are trying to stop actually work?

They are worth asking, because the value of advertising - in all its forms - is under question, and whether we like it or not, advertising pays for a lot of the things we love, not just the Olympics.

Consumers have never been subjected to more attempts to reach out and communicate with them, but conversely they have never been better at filtering those attempts out. Last night I sat down with my daughter to watch the latest episode of Veep on Sky Atlantic at 10.10pm. We always tune in at this time, because it allows us to view the show on catch-up, thereby fast-forwarding though the adverts on x30. We watch 90% of our TV on catch-up these days and I honestly can't remember the last time I watched a TV ad. Timeshifting is great for viewers, but less so for advertisers channels who rely on their revenue to fund programmes.

In the fragmented media landscape of the 21st century, the dilemma facing all brands is that we have never been easier to reach, but connecting with us has never been harder. Success comes to those who make an emotional connection - persuading us to make a lifestyle choice - rather than a rational connection - selling us a product benefit.

These emotional connections are extremely effective, they are what make us intuitively 'feel' that a brand is unique; not the same as their competitors. As brands Apple and Samsung or Coke and Pepsi feel different, even though the products they make are very similar.

Which brings us to the Olympics sponsors. In short, they are simply trying to get us to love them, by associating themselves with something else we love. Their hope is not so much that we will buy their product, but rather that we will buy-into their brand.

This approach is light years away from opportunistic piggy-backing we might expect to see from local florists and garages, but they are merely the collateral damage as legislation is really designed to protect sponsors from the kind of guerilla activity carried out Dutch Brewery Bavaria during the 2010 World Cup.

In many ways the brand police will be saving companies from themselves. Knowing what needs to be done is not the same as knowing how to do it, which is why most attempts to engage our emotions end in failure.

During a family day-out in central London, I found myself drawn unexpectedly into a debate about the efficacy of destination marketing. On the platform of London Bridge tube station, my wife pointed to an advert on the opposite side of the track which announced boldly, "Even our worms are a global marketing phenomenon" and asked, "Does that sort of thing actually work?"

Further reading revealed that it was promoting a place where "The can-do culture is thriving." A singular example is provided: the titular worms turn out to be Worms the popular video game franchise developed by Wakefield based Team 17, which led the copy writer to the bold conclusion that, "When you start something here, you can take over the world."

I believe it's highly unlikely that you'll find anybody who thinks that this kind of advertising has any measurable benefit all or that someone real would be engaged by the campaign, let alone consider relocating their business (from London) as a consequence.


Worms is a good games franchise with a long history, but no more a global phenomenon than other UK developed series like Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider or Football Manager. The advert fails, because it actually implies is that it's not so much the game that's remarkable, but the fact it was produced in Yorkshire (Of all places! Who'd have thought it?). "Even our worms..." is not unique: ineffective marketing is everywhere. So to return to my wife's question - why do people do it?

The answer is because it's easy. Just like it's easy to put together an Olympics-themed campaign. However, it is vastly more difficult to put together one that works.

You could run "Even our Worms..." for 1,000 years and still fail to move a single person. Yet when the inevitable failure occurs it is an orphan, because this kind of project work has little accountability. Who failed? The ad agency? It was merely responding to a brief. The marketing team? It selected the agency on an approved best value basis, from a list of tried and tested suppliers. Senior management? Its strategy was based on rigorous research and market intelligence so they're hardly to blame for the ad's failure. Heads seldom roll.

Ultimately, all this is good news for media carriers, programme makers and Olympics sponsors. After the event, I expect the biggest impact of this legislation will have been to save companies from wasting good money on their own bad marketing.

Steve McKevitt is author of Everything Now published by Route Publishing, priced £8.99.