As the thrill of the Winter Olympics plays out in Sochi, some advertisers in Canada are crashing the party.
That's the view of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which is again airing concerns that a company is making a marketing connection to the Games without paying for it.
The COC is considering "all of our options" to fight a campaign by Labatt Breweries of Canada, which the committee says is misleading Canadians into associating the company's Budweiser brand with the Olympics.
The campaign launched during the Super Bowl broadcast in Canada last weekend, and featured a large Budweiser blimp designed to look like a hockey goal light. The ad features a scene in Moscow, with dejected fans watching Team Canada score against Russia. Starting on Friday, the same day as the opening ceremonies in Sochi, Labatt began sending the real-life, 70-foot blimp out for appearances in Canadian cities, which it has said will continue over the coming weeks.
Labatt's parent company, Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. is not an Olympic sponsor in Canada; however Budweiser parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev SA does have a relationship with the U.S. Olympic Committee. In Canada, the official beer partner of the COC is Molson Coors Brewing Co.
The COC's concerns about Labatt's campaign come just days after it filed suit against outerwear brand The North Face parent company VF Outdoor (Canada) Inc. After publicly raising concerns last month about that brand's "Villagewear" collection of clothing – some of which featured the date of the Olympic opening ceremonies or patches labelled "RU 14" – the COC filed a claim in a Vancouver court last Tuesday, asking for an injunction to prevent the North Face from marketing itself in a way that suggests an Olympic connection, and an order to get rid of the offending products.
Sponsors pay anywhere from $2-million to $6-million per year to associate themselves with Canadian Olympians through a marketing partnership with the COC. But those sponsorships are not enough on their own: Marketers must also buy plenty of advertising – and make those ads memorable – so that Canadians watching the Games actually take note of their brands' support of the athletes. That is why contrasting advertising messages from competitors, which suggest a connection to the Olympics – a phenomenon known as ambush marketing – is so problematic for marketers and for the COC.
In advertising for the "Budweiser Red Zeppelin" on the brand's Facebook page, a message invites consumers to "show your support for Canada" by sharing the picture of the light. The blimp is a replica of a product Budweiser began selling last year: red goal lights that could be programmed to go off every time the owner's favourite National Hockey League team scores a goal. Now Budweiser is advertising the fact that those goal lights can now be programmed to do the same with the men's and women's Canadian Olympic hockey teams. All the promotional material on social media includes a fine-print disclaimer that "Budweiser is not an official sponsor of the Olympic Games, the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, Hockey Canada or the Canadian Olympic Committee and this campaign is not licensed by, sponsored by, or otherwise associated with those parties." Of course, Budweiser is not an NHL sponsor either – it lost that partnership to Molson.
Kyle Norrington, marketing director of Labatt Breweries of Canada, said "Budweiser is a long-time proud and passionate supporter of hockey and hockey fans at all levels. Goals are the most anticipated plays of the game and the Budweiser Red Light – first introduced in 2013 – is based on the most iconic goal scoring symbol in hockey. We have gone out of our way to make it clear that Budweiser Red Lights are not related to any one league or event."
The COC, however, believes the legal disclaimers are not good enough.
"We do not accept ambush marketing, we don't think it is right, and we think Canadian consumers have a right to know who those Canadian corporations are who have stepped up with financial support that goes directly to support the Sochi Canadian Olympic Team," COC chief executive officer Chris Overholt said in an e-mailed statement.
According to the COC, 97 per cent of the funding it receives to support the Canadian Olympic team comes from corporate sponsors.
Because the Olympics have begun, the COC says it will need to move more swiftly to address concerns about ambush marketing, but would not clarify what action it plans to take or when.