Olympic Sponsors Facing Criticism…

At what point does sponsorship of a mega-event like the Olympic Games yield diminishing returns if the brand’s image receives a significant amount of negative publicity? 

If you have tuned in to watch the Games within the past four years, you have likely seen (or heard) the slogan “Visa: The Only Card Accepted at the 20XX Olympic Games” being advertised in one form or another.  Visa has long been one of the biggest supporters of the Games (since 1986) and, as part of their relationship with the organizing committee as a sponsor, is the exclusive credit card of the Olympic Games.

As such, anyone without a Visa might find themselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to making an Olympic purchase.  The official ticketing website of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games states “In recognition of Visa’s longstanding support of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, only Visa (debit, credit and prepaid) can be used to purchase tickets.”  In other words, if fans want tickets to see the beach volleyball competition, they will need a Visa to make the purchase.  Same goes for anyone buying a t-shirt to commemorate their experience at the Games.  And anyone thinking they can circumvent the system by visiting an ATM and paying with cash better think again because if their debit card does not feature a Visa logo, they’ll be hit with a hefty “convenience” charge.  Visa will have a near-monopoly on ATMs at event facilities.

Granted, organizers need to create value for sponsors paying millions in sponsorship fees to justify the spend, but one has to wonder if consumers become turned off to the brand as a result of the exclusivity (for more perspective on Visa’s exclusive deal and how it impacts consumers in London, check out this blog post from b2bmarketing.net.)  Visa isn’t the only one generating headlines for something other than their Olympic loyalty either.  McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, two long-standing partners of the Olympic Games (who have spent billions over the years supporting the event and even waived their right to using the Games as a tax exemption) have received a lot of criticism from advocates of healthier eating.  It will be interesting to see how everything plays out following the Games from a publicity perspective.  Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, hasn’t exactly rushed to the side of two of the Games top sponsors either, suggesting there had been a “question mark” hanging over aligning with them for the London Games.  Of course, Rogge pulled a 180 the day after making the statement, saying he’s “proud to be associated with them.”

It remains to be seen if any of these brands will pull back on their support, but if the criticism becomes widespread and the risk of damaging the brand becomes real, well, you never know…