When Olympic Brand Bullying Backfires

If you get between a Brit and his chips, your brand may ultimately suffer.

Never get between an Englishman and his chips.

McDonald’s is spending a lot of money at the Olympics (around $100 million) for an exclusive sponsorship deal and the right to tell the other 800 caterers on the Olympics grounds that they can’t sell "chips" (that's French fries to you Yankees) during the Games. The only nod to British eating habits and national pride is to allow these caterers to sell traditional fish and chips (and, no, people won’t be allowed to order fish and chips, hold the haddock).

Why would McDonald’s expect that this would not cause the furor that it has, in fact, caused? "McDonald’s has turned the London Summer Olympics into a no-fry zone," "’Chipgate’ scandal rocks Olympics," were just two of the headlines. Sebastian Payne, writing in the Spectator, labeled the Games as the "Censorship Olympics." He said that the "Soviet-style roadlanes are bad enough, but the right to sell a bag of chips to anyone who wants one is fairly fundamental."

McDonald’s is not the only company flexing its corporate sponsorship rights. Visa has been accused of cashing in by replacing ATMs with many fewer machines that only accept its cards. Although Visa has always used its Olympics deal as part of its long-running "only card accepted" campaign, this move is upping the ante. To protect Heineken’s sponsorship, all other drinks will be sold unbranded—you won’t be able to order a Guinness at the Games—you’ll have to order a pint of stout.

The Olympics organizing committee (IOC) has recruited hundreds of uniformed Olympics officers tasked with roaming the streets of Britain looking for any use of Olympic brand equities not officially sanctioned. This is not just the unauthorized use of the Olympic rings but also the use of banned words like "gold", "summer" and "London" if they are construed to connect to the games. Under legislation passed by the government, these "brand police" have the right to enter shops and offices and levy heavy fines against violators. Grandmothers giving dolls to church donations, florists in Stoke-on-Trent, lingerie shops in Leicester and butchers in Dorset have all been swept up in this dragnet.

Over the years, the IOC and its global sponsors have been frustrated by ambush marketers who have been extremely creative in finding ways to associate with the Olympics without paying for the privilege. Nike, American Express, and Pepsi have all successfully played this ambushing game and the IOC has responded by tightening the rules and enforcing its rights.

But this escalating battle between sponsors and their ambush-minded competitors is now officially out of control. Sponsors have become so focused on stopping ambushes that they’ve forgotten about the people living in the country hosting the games. They are just collateral damage in this epic battle. As Tom Chivers in The Telegraph said, this is the moment when "corporate sponsorship lost its mind."

It’s gone too far. People don’t like monopolies and they don’t like bullies. The IOC and its sponsors, blinded by the battle with their ambushing enemies, are acting like both. They need to back off and think about things from the public’s (their consumer’s) perspective.

Otherwise, the money they are spending will not generate the goodwill it is intended to. And that would be a waste of the almost one billion dollars they are spending.

[Image: Flick user Alfonsina Blyde]

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  • Clip Creative and PR

    Our MD was a games maker volunteer for the Paralympic and he felt as though the entire Olympic park was a corporate festival...there was nothing traditionally British about it. None of the historic British brands, food, drink or products had a chance! He refused to eat and Mc Donalds at the Paralympic park!

  • Wake up

    One important point to write about this sponsor craziness: non of the sponsors paid as much money for these games as the UK taxpayers. That means you are the main sponsor of these Olympic games and you are the ones who should be profitting here! People who pay taxes in the UK are the ONLY MAIN SPONSOR of the games and should not be threatened to pay fines if they want to make some money of it!!!

  • Alex Nascimento

    Hey Martin,

    I agree! 

    Missing the factor "People" in any marketing strategy goes against basic principles of traditional marketing (who is your target?) as well as more forward thinking principles of green marketing (people, profits and planet).

    Just a poor strategy...

    Congratulations for the awesome blog post! 


    -Alex Nascimento  

  • Melvin@Vestiigo

    The Olympic games have officially turned into a joke. It was once about the sport and the human spirit, has turned into a viral advertising campaign.

  • czydiamond

    Seems like many of the big corporations are not only bullies and cheats, but seem to be stupid as well. 

  • Steve Gorton

    Not just the bullying approach - As Jamie's comment the hypocrisy of sponsoring companies whose products are said by many to generate poor health rather than endorse a healthy approach - be that McD, Coke, Kraft (Cadbury) who only provide a miniscule 2% of the sponsorship.

    More details here


    And this is before the choice of proper UK beer is potentially banned when it could have been brewed as "Summer Gold Ale" for some time prior to this marketing fiasco.


  • atimoshenko

    How long before companies realise that a lot of marketing expenditure today is actually decreasing their sales?

    We have other sources of information now – make a great product and all interested people will find out about it without you having to megaphone its virtues.

  • 起重机

    A nice preview of the future for everyone. Enjoy while you can. Your the ones putting up with it. As long as you do, they will continue to get worse.

  • Kyle Conrad

    The McDonald's deal sounds about standard for any sponsor at an event/arena - same as at a local hockey game, Papa Johns may be the only place allowed to sell slices of pizza.

    Not saying it's right, but it's not really different than any other sponsor/event deal out there.

  • Martin Bishop

    I think it's a little different. I don't think people have a problem with Papa Johns being the only pizza sold at an event that it has sponsored. But it seems to me that McD stopping all other caterers selling any kind of chip is one step further and one step too far.

  • Andriy Azarov

    Author forgot that it is Britain applied to host OG and not opposit. Whoever is paying ordering the music.

  • Jaime Torres

    The problem started when the Olympics sold out to sponsors such as McDonalds and Heineken….common…the a sporting event reflecting the highest values of health and wellbeing sponsored by junk food and a beer?

  • Martin Kølbæk

    Interestingly, perception beats logic. You don't think "Burgers for athletes? That's just stupid" (which of course, it is); but the next time you're choosing between 45 minutes in the kitchen and a BigMac, you have less trouble justifying the latter. "McDonalds promote sports and make salads nowadays, maybe it's not that bad..."

    It's not what you're actually saying. It's the message you get across.

  • Jaime Torres

    Good point Martin

    As an event organiser in need of sponsorship i somewhat sympathize with the position of those that put on the Olympics. I'm glad to be able to barely keep out those sponsors whose core business values are so far removed from the event's. 

    I am more glad that faced with a choice like the one you present I would still not go to McDonalds! But when I drink beer I often choose Heineken.

  • Martin Bishop

    I also sympathize with the sponsors. If I'd paid all that money, I would want to make sure that those that hadn't (the ambushers) were kept out of the event. But brands like Nike have still found ways to work around the restrictions and, meanwhile, regular people trying to celebrate the games just become collateral damage in the battle.