Mind the Olympic brand police

With less than a month to go before the "greatest show on earth" kicks off in the capital, it is tempting to jump on to the Olympic bandwagon, but doing so could land you in trouble if you're not careful.

There are two pieces of legislation to look out for. The first is concerned with protecting the Olympic rings, enforced since 1995. "Whenever any small business has been pulled up on a breach it is usually to do with the Olympic rings," says Nellie Jackson, senior associate at law firm Bristows.

One fish and chip shop found this out when they decided to wear t-shirts emblazoned with the Olympic rings and received a letter from Games organisers. "You think it is common sense to not engage in this activity, but people don't realise it," says Jackson. "I guess they just think they are supporting the Olympic Games and the fact that they are going to take place here this year."

The second piece of legislation has been put together by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), specifically to protect the official sponsors of the Games who have paid in excess of £100m. "All host countries are required to regulate for any kind of exploitation of the games and to counter what they call ambush marketing," explains Jackson.

To this end, two lists of so-called listed expressions that are out of bounds have been compiled. Expressions likely to be considered a breach of the rules would include any two of the following list: "Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve". Using one of those words with "London, medals, sponsors, summer, gold, silver or bronze" is another likely breach. So if a certain company says it is backing the 2012 Games, it's safe to say it will be a bit of a red rag.

It is not as bad as people may think, says Jackson, but it is very broad. "It sounds very restrictive, but in practice it is probably not as bad as businesses may think," she says. "You can't combine words from the two lists, but it is not necessarily an infringement if you do - it just means they will look at those in particular. If you had something like the Tower of London gold jewels exhibition 2012 it is clearly not making an association with the Olympics so it does need to be taken into context."

If you run a cafe and want to start serving "Olympic" breakfast you're likely to fall foul of the regulations. So what should businesses do if they want to get in on the action? "The safe thing to do, and what a lot of the large corporations are doing, is focus on patriotism. There is no monopoly on getting behind the country or patriotism and you'll see a lot of people bringing the Union Jack into advertising and packaging and that is perfectly fine so if you avoid actual use of Olympic imagery and symbols and just getting behind the country and a great summer in London of sport then that's the way to play it," says Jackson. "The important point to make is that you can get behind it as long as it is not for commercial gain so it's where you are trying to promote your business off the back of the Games. This is a right that is exclusively for the official sponsors."

Those who break the rules can expect little more than a grumpy letter from LOCOG though potentially the sanctions can be draconian. "If you're guilty of infringement there can be an injunction to stop you, and it could involve damages. The authorities have quite extensive powers to search and seize, but I think you're more likely to receive a letter and be asked to using the infringing matter," says Jackson.

While bigger businesses have got in on the act by sponsoring Olympic athletes, Virgin Media - a non-sponsor - is a case in point, having signed up Usain Bolt. Nike, another big fish that is not a sponsor, recently came out top in a poll of the sports brand most associated with the Olympic Games - most likely because of their sponsorship of well-known athletes. Sure, it's very clever from Nike, but annoying for the people at Adidas who have forked out £100m to be an associated brand.

If you're small and have a limited budget Jackson's advice is to go for the patriotism angle. "Get behind what a great summer it is to be in London, use the Union Jack - that take on it is by far the best way to go. That is what we have seen from the biggest corporates as well - just going on the high profile summer in sport."

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