Mind your hashtags: Why your company needs to tread carefully when supporting the Olympics on social media

Companies taking to social media to show support for Olympic athletes will have to tread carefully throughout the course of the 2016 games, as the International Olympic Committee has been cracking down on the use of its trademarked phrases and hashtags in connection to the Rio Games.

As reported by the BBC, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), which is overseen by the IOC, has been accused of “bullying” non-official sponsors that are posting about the event. The USOC holds a trademark on many Olympics related words and slogans, including “go for the gold” and “future Olympian.”

This has now expanded to the realm of social media, with the IOC trademarking a number of Olympic-related hashtags, such as #rio2016 and #teamUSA. ESPN reports a number of non-official sponsor companies that were hoping to support athletes on Twitter and Instagram, received letters from the USOC, warning them about the use of intellectual property.

“Commercial entities may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts,” the letter reads.

“This restriction includes the use of USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.”

On the website for the USOC, the organisation states it “appreciates interest, excitement and conversation about the Games and recognises the nature of social media”. However, the website also states, “other commercial entities may not post about the Games on their corporate social media accounts”.

“Any use of USOC trademarks on a non-media company’s website or social media site is viewed as commercial in nature and consequently is prohibited.”

Media companies are not prohibited from using trademarks or hashtags.

One company which reportedly received a letter from the USOC is women’s sports clothing brand Oiselle, which posted a photo of athlete Kate Grace shortly after she qualified for the Olympics.

The photo and caption, as seen above, do not appear to infringe on any IOC trademarks, with the brand steering clear of the offending hashtags.

However, the company did not account for the running number Grace was wearing for her qualification, which features a tiny, almost indistinguishable set of Olympic rings.

Oiselle was ordered to remove the photo within 24 hours, as the USOC is concerned viewers may think the brand is an official sponsor. At the time of publication, Oiselle has not removed the post.

These aggressive tactics are a way for the IOC to prevent what they call “ambush marketing”, which Australian telecommunications brand Telstra was accused of early July. The company was forced to alter an advertisement after it claimed it is the “Official technology partner of Seven’s Olympic Games coverage”, when Optus is the current telecommunications partner of the event.

“The IOC and its partners in the Olympic Movement take the threat of ambush marketing very seriously. Our aim is to protect the integrity of the Olympic symbols, the Olympic Games, and the investment of our official partners,” the IOC told the BBC.

“Where there is an infringement we take a pragmatic approach to ensure there is an appropriate response. However if a company makes a concerted effort to create an unauthorised commercial association with the Olympic Games or the Olympic properties then we will take swift action, and if necessary legal action.”

What SMEs need to know

Narissa Corrigan, advertising expert and lawyer at Ampersand Legal, told SmartCompany smaller businesses may well “fly under the radar” when it comes to Olympic marketing, but vigilance is still required.

“Smaller companies are not immune to allegations of trademark infringement from the Australian Olympic Committee, so they should always proceed with caution,” Corrigan says.

“The AOC and the USOC are a bit different when it comes to the Olympic trademarks, but they’re generally both vigilant with making sure brands don’t create associations where an association doesn’t exist.”

Corrigan says the IOC’s protection of its sponsors is understandable, but does agree the Committee can approach it in strange ways.

“The IOC has a legitimate commercial reason to protect its trademarks and sponsors, they pay a lot of money to be associated with the Olympics,” Corrigan says.

“However they do tend to pursue companies and make decisions in strange circumstances.”

For businesses wanting to support the Aussie athletes in Rio, Corrigan suggests trying some indirect marketing instead.

“If you want to reference the athletes, perhaps having the generic Aussie colours of green and gold can be a good way to do it,” she says.

“I would always recommend businesses engaging with the Olympics to proceed with caution.”


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