Defensive Strategy

The Sochi Games: A Branding Disaster for the IOC

20 Sep 2013  

As I wrote several weeks back, the Winter Olympic Games is a branding problem for Russia. Now it is also becoming a branding problem for the International Olympic Committee.

Russia, host of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, earlier this year passed legislation banning discussion of gay rights. People found guilty of spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” face fines and jail time.

This predictably caused a major backlash and set up an obvious issue with the upcoming Sochi Olympic Games because the prohibition runs counter to the spirit of the event. It also is offensive to many athletes.

So it looked like the Sochi Winter Olympic Games would turn into a celebration of gay rights, with athletes wearing rainbows and Russian leaders looking on in dismay.

Recently, however, Russia started calling on the IOC to enforce its rule against political demonstrations. The suggestion is that if athletes show up wearing rainbows the IOC should send them home. Russia is deftly shifting the blame and making it the IOC’s issue.

The problem is that the IOC can’t control things and even trying to risks creating an even bigger problem.

Imagine that shortly before the opening ceremonies a major gay rights organization calls on athletes to show their opposition to Russia’s law by wearing dark glasses. Will the IOC then send everyone wearing sunglasses home?

If all the French athletes wear dark glasses, will the IOC send the entire delegation back to Paris?

This would do terrible harm to the Olympic brand. The IOC would look powerful, threatening and controlling.

It would also be a major problem for sponsors. People might reason that if Coke supports the IOC, and the IOC sends home athletes that speak out against Russia’s discriminatory law, then Coke is supporting both the law and the IOC’s heavy handed tactics. This is just about the last thing Coke wants in return for its massive investment in the Olympics.

My advice to the IOC is simple. Don’t try to control the situation. Let everyone wear rainbows. It might be an embarrassment for Russia but the host nation invited the controversy with its ill-considered legislative move.

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Classes start this week at Kellogg. It is fun to be back teaching the MBA students. Spirits are high on campus; apparently the improving economy is translating into jobs and that contributes substantially to student morale.

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