A regional PR photo shoot is hardly big news. But anyone who was at Southend Airport last July would have observed a now depressingly familiar scene.
Local girl Sally Gunnell was promoting easyJet’s new London Southend service. At the bidding of a photographer, Gunnell was asked to raise a Union flag above her shoulders. But just as she was about to comply, a figure from the background stepped into the shot.
The individual in question was one of Locog’s marketing team. Keen to avoid the heavy penalties for inappropriate Olympic promotions by non-sponsors that were voted into British law in 2006, easyJet had invited a Locog executive to observe proceedings. And its visitor was not happy.
Raising the national flag over her shoulders was deemed to be too reminiscent of Gunnell’s triumphant gesture after winning the 1992 400 metres hurdles Olympic gold in Barcelona. The photo shoot was halted, the Union flag removed and Gunnell changed from a white tracksuit to a more acceptable orange T-shirt.
The Olympic brand police had arrived. And since that overcast day last year their activities have grown in both frequency and ridiculousness. A butcher in Weymouth was told a few years ago to remove his display of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings; a small village in Surrey has been stopped from running an “Olympicnic” on its village green; pub landlords have been warned they cannot advertise that the Olympics are being shown on their televisions inside; and athletes have been told not to tweet about the wrong brands. What’s more, crowd members will not be able to post videos of the events they have paid a great deal of money to attend on social networks, and Locog will even scour the bathrooms of all the Olympic venues and remove all the logos of all non-sponsored brands.
I am not sure what Locog calls this approach, but I can assure the organising committee that it has nothing to do with brand management. And it certainly has nothing to do with the Olympic brand – at least the original one that existed before it was interfered with by big corporations and bureaucrats.
The original Olympic brand was founded on a belief of freedom of expression and the triumph of the individual. Jesse Owens showing Hitler that a black man was anything but inferior to his Aryan competition in 1936. Dick Fosbury setting an Olympic record in the high jump by inventing a completely new jumping technique in 1968. Usain Bolt’s impromptu victory dance in 2008. This is the Olympic spirit – creative, disruptive, free. How do we square that with a bureaucrat regulating local sausage displays?
It has nothing to do with brand Britain. Ask any of the international visitors to the 2012 Olympics about the British identity and they will talk to you about eccentricity, humour and non-conformity. Think about eccentric Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards. Which other country would count a man like that among their Olympians? Err, apart from Equatorial Guinea, which honoured Eric ‘The Eel’ Malonga with similar status.
How do we reconcile Britishness with someone telling one of our greatest athletes she does not have permission to raise her own flag? When did the London Olympics devolve into stopping people from flying the Union flag? And shouldn’t Locog be encouraging engagement with 2012 and driving public co-creation with the event, rather than eliminating it?
A maniacal focus on logo use has ensured that Locog has completely missed the bigger branding picture. This was meant to be the “people’s games”. This was supposed to be a celebration of London and what it means to be British. But all that has been lost in a sea of clipboard regulations and brand policing.
Locog has made the most common and most basic branding error of all. It has focused all its efforts on identity at the expense of positioning. Who cares whether there is an Armitage Shanks logo on a urinal in the Olympic village? I’d be more concerned with ensuring that the spirit of the Olympic movement and the fundamental greatness of British culture are projected to the rest of the world.
Locog has sacrificed all this for what? The Guardian recently reported a survey that confirmed Nike was the brand most associated with London 2012 – even though it is not a sponsor.
Meanwhile, according to Ipsos, official sponsors like Samsung, Adidas and British Airways struggle to achieve 5% unaided association with the Games despite spending hundreds of millions for the privilege.
If you need proof of how Locog is managing the 2012 brand, just look around you at how many people – and most of the media – are already alienated from their own Olympics.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to explain to Locog the crucial difference between being brand police and being real brand managers. I believe it’s too late to stop London 2012 from going down as brand mismanagement of the very worst kind.