The rescheduled 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are right around the corner, and we’re getting into the Olympic spirit. Events like these that only take place every X amount of years are excellent branding opportunities. You can use the hype to generate some major attention on the international stage, and the event lends itself to a theme for your promotions. Big brands do this every year.
The line you have to walk, though, is that if you go too heavy on that Olympic spirit, you might be crossing into illegal territory. As you can imagine, the International Olympic Committee is mighty careful who can and can’t use its logos, verbiage and iconography.
As you'd probably guess, the logos associated with the Olympic Games—the rings, the U.S. Olympic Committee symbol and the Paralympic games logos—are all trademarked under U.S. law, making them off limits without approval.
It’s not just the logos, though. Using phrases like “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” “Paralympic,” “Pan-American,” or just about anything related to the U.S. presence at the Olympics creates a risk of infringing on the Olympics' intellectual property. There are some obvious ones, but some are less obvious. For example:
Let the games begin
Also, from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's official brand guidelines:
Federal law also prohibits unauthorized use of simulations of OLYMPIC tending to falsely suggest an affiliation with the Olympic Games, such as AQUALYMPICS, SKYLYMPICS, CHICAGOLYMPICS, BROLYMPICS, RADIOLYMPICS, MATHLYMPICS, etc.
Think about how it is for similar sports events like the Super Bowl or March Madness. You can't use those words on merchandise at all. And this is the Olympics, aka the biggest international sporting event after maybe the World Cup.
Any time you see a company like Coca-Cola or, recently, The Gap using something like the rings or the word “Olympics,” trust that they went through the proper licensing process. Also trust that to get that license was an expensive ordeal. Wired reported that for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 68 licensees spent $163 million on licensing from the organizing committee.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that the Olympics was so proprietary about its imagery. Before 1972’s Munich Olympics, the IOC didn’t use a licensing agent or sell any rights to use the logo. This was also the first year that the Olympics started using mascots, which has become a major part of each host nation’s branding effort.
Unless you feel like dealing with the U.S. Olympic Committee or the IOC, and maybe spending a hefty sum of money, it’s best to avoid anything using the term “Olympics.” If your clients want something Olympic-themed for a promotional event, try to steer them in the direction of generic-sounding events, like “The Big Game” for the Super Bowl or, um, “basketball” for the NCAA Tournament.
If you are looking to do any tie-in promos that aren't officially licensed, tread carefully. For the full list of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's brand usage guidelines, click here.