The opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games is still a day away, according to the countdown clock. But the marketing competition is in full swing, and there are already some clear-cut winners and losers in the race to translate finish line to bottom line. Between the loose-cannon entrepreneurs, the athletes deigning to fit competition into their social schedules, and the British tabloid press, the Olympic Village has morphed into a street bazaar where everyone is selling something.
Ironically, in this year's 24/7 media environment where a provocative tweet or a loopy marketing idea can hijack the news cycle, the also-rans in the 2012 summer games may turn out to be the official corporate sponsors
who have paid millions of dollars to be sidelined by the strictest advertising rule book in Olympic history.
The very proper British didn't bargain on the power of social media back in 2006 when they passed the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act, designed to spell out every aspect of corporate identity for the Olympic logo and message. It was supposed to give blue-chip sponsors like Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), GE (NYSE: GE), Visa (NYSE: V), and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) the inside track in creating advertising that literally could not be legally duplicated by others.
But to paraphrase John Lennon, a Brit who knew a thing or two about commanding the spotlight, "Viral marketing is what happens while you're making other plans." And so it was, that in a true illustration of nice guys finishing last, the corporate sponsors -- whose every image and word had to pass muster with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) -- created ads of such bland sameness that reporters quickly went elsewhere in search of human-interest gold.
They didn't have to look far. Their first stop was to focus on the small but mighty entrepreneurial efforts that had been ordered to cease and desist by the IOC "branding police," as the British press has dubbed them. There was the Fantastic Sausage Factory whose Olympic ring motif was lovingly crafted out of luncheon meat. The 81-year-old church lady forbidden to sell her hand-knit fundraising dolls. The misspelled Olympic torch tattoo. And finally, there was the small privately-owned business called Party Pieces, run by a lovely family, the Middletons, whose daughters, Kate and Pippa, you might have heard of. Their sin? Designing a kiddy ring toss game using the Olympic colors. Better not quit your day job, Duchess of Cambridge!
And then it was on to the real scandals. Major sponsor Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) was excoriated for acquiring a company linked to the Bhopal, India, gas tragedy of 1984. Ralph Lauren (NYSE: RL) took a turn on the hot seat for manufacturing the US delegation's uniforms in China, called out by US track and field athlete Nick Symmonds, who may not have been the blue blazer type in the first place, given his prominent shoulder tattoo of the Olympic rings.
But it took news of a few irresistible sex scandals to truly ignite the Olympic flame of marketing potential for the 2012 games. So far, the big winners on this front appear to be Church & Dwight (NYSE: CHD), maker of the 150K Trojan condoms to be stocked in the Olympic Village, and ESPN (a joint venture of Disney [NYSE: DIS] and the privately-owned Hearst TV), whose Body Issue has immortalized not only naked athletes but the uncensored musings of US Soccer goalie Hope Solo.
So, as the torch bearers make their final approach through the streets of London before selling their torches on eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY), I need a shower! But I leave you with one final observation about the London 2012 Marketing Games: Sadly, it is possible to stage a five-ring circus, after all.