Three Brand and Social Media Lessons from the Olympics

The brand police are out in Olympic proportions for the 2012 games and their domain includes both earned and paid media.  These rules have several categorical implications.

First, participating athletes cannot pitch for sponsors not affiliated with the Olympics. The moratorium began on July 18th and runs through August 15th.  The rule is designed to protect the exposure of official sponsors.

Second, local businesses in London are prohibited from having any brand likeness – and likeness is enforced liberally.  For example, “A London diner called the Olympic Cafe was forced to change its name – it’s now the ‘Lympic,” according to a post on the brand police.  Ironically, street vendors have been defiant, with one selling t-shirts that presents an image of a thief making off with the five Olympic rings. The image has now turned into an Internet meme.

Third, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is attempting to implement rather stringent rules on social media sharing.  Social posts must be in “a first-person, diary-type format,” video from the event is not to be shared, and participating athletes have even tighter restrictions.

I’d say this is a rare reason to speak about oneself in the third person:  “Frank no-like Olympic social media rules.”

The rules are particularly ironic because, as Mashable noted, they “are in stark contrast to the robust social and digital strategy” the IOC rolled out to build its brand. Freely sharing to build a brand and an audience – then trying to control them once you have them – is a prescription for disaster.

“Why would you want to handicap a form of media that only increases exposure for your event?” asked Nick Symmonds, a US sprinter in the aforementioned Mashable post.  “If you’re trying to make these the most watched Games in the history of the world, why would you take the people responsible for that history and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that, you can’t share?’ Limiting it seems so stupid.”

He makes a good point. There are several lessons businesses can learn from the way the Olympics are handling branding in a social media world.

1.  Let go of control. They say social media has a short memory, but remember the GAP’s debacle over its logo?  Or how about What Happens if You Violate Twitter’s New Logo Guidelines?  The more control and rules we try to force on customers, the more likely we are to wind up on a satirical t-shirt and detract from the brand.  It’s scary for many, but cede control, embrace the satire and frame ideas instead.

2.  Content wants to be freely shared. Everything we do as marketers should be aimed at facilitating sharing – because people buy from brands their friends. An eMarketer study found that 20% of online users in the US buy from brands their friends follow.  Social shares and follows are a form of validation – if the IOC seeks to break viewing records, they need to foster sharing, to attract new fans.  Besides, who knows what amazing photos and videos might be captured by users with iPhone cameras and a Twitter app.

3. Content and social curation is the new branding. The Olympic logo is central to the IOC’s branding enforcement – on and offline.  But branding isn’t a logo.  Brands are what our customers and prospects perceive.  In other words, brands exist in the minds of our audience.  In social media, these perceptions are indicated in the form of content that our audiences also share on social networks – we can literally see what many think.  The way to position a brand – the first-ever Social Olympics – won’t be done by trying to block people from expressing them.

What lessons would you share?

Photo credit:  MemeCenter




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