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5 Best Olympic Marketing Coups

The battle for publicity between the companies that paid to sponsor the 2012 London Games and those that saved their gold is not, itself, an Olympic sport. But experts say it’s just as competitive.

Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Beats By Dr. Dre headphones, which many Olympians have been wearing during the 2012 Games in London.

Brands have spent more on these Games than on any previous Olympics. The 11 worldwide sponsors – including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Visa — have paid $957 million for marketing rights over the past four years, which includes their support of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. That’s up 10% over the $866 million spent by the worldwide sponsors on the Beijing and Turin Games. Still, there’s nothing to stop competing brands from piggybacking on to the Olympics to promote themselves. “These sponsors face a big challenge to protect their $100 million investments from the campaigns of outsiders,” says Jennifer P. Brown, spokeswoman for social media marketing company Izea.

The official brands do enjoy plenty of protective moats. Unlike at other major sporting events, there is no banner advertising allowed within Olympic venues. Plus, the International Olympic Committee’s “Rule 40” bans athletes from promoting brands that are not official partners of the games. “Where there are instances of overt unauthorized branding on the field of play, we will take action to address this,” says a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee. Olympians are also forbidden from tweeting or blogging about brands that are not official partners of the 2012 London games.

Helped by these restrictions, some of the biggest sponsors say they’re getting a healthy return on their investment. For instance, Adidas has spent $124 million since 2007 to be the official sportswear partner of the London Olympics. The company says it expects to achieve sales of £100 million ($156 million) as a direct result of its involvement in the 2012 games, an increase of 250% on the sales bump it got thanks to the Beijing games. “We are very happy with our involvement,” says Adidas spokesman Jan Runau.

But not all brands appear to have benefited from the Olympic spotlight. McDonald’s, for example, has found itself at the center of a donnybrook about whether a fast-food restaurant chain should be the sponsor of an event associated with physical health. Last week, London Mayor Boris Johnson said those who objected to McDonald’s suffered from “bourgeois snobbery.” It sparked a debate online and led to headlines like “Olympic Brand McDonald’s Suffers Twitter Humiliation.”  On Wednesday, McDonald’s reported flat same-store sales in July. Becca Hary, a spokeswoman, says the benefits are long-term: “Our partnership extends well beyond a financial investment.”

Meanwhile, marketing pros say some of the most memorable endorsements of the 2012 Games are not coming from the official sponsors at all — but from others. Several companies have found more creative and even brazen ways of capitalizing on the buzz surrounding the games, for a lot less money, says Gordon MacMillan, social media editor at Brand Republic Group in London. “These rebel campaigns have been testing how far they can go without falling foul of the Olympics’ strict rules,” he says.

Our experts picked some of the more unique “ambush” marketing campaigns:

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