An Olympic Sponsorship Initiative That Went Sour

The Israeli Olympic Committee (IOC) has been looking eagerly for a symbolic icon that would accompany the country’s delegation to the Olympic Games in London this summer. It sought an icon that would be associated with a recognizable characteristic representative of the country or its people. They sought an icon that would be likeable, possibly humorous, which may put a smile on people’ faces in connection to Israel and raise morale among members of the Israeli sports team as a token of good luck.

But in its quest the committee has erred twice in its choice of icon figures: first, when choosing a figure that is not truly original, and secondly, by adopting the figure-logo of a commercial brand. These choices quickly became an issue of controversy and both figurative icons had to be dismissed. The rejection of the second brand-logo is the more interesting for its novelty: it can be attributed  prominently to the recent social protest against large business corporations.

The IOC started well by commissioning a creative art design team to produce an icon for the delegation at the Olympics. They came up with the idea of a figure of a cactus (‘sabres’), associated with native Israelis.  However, many Israelis in their 30s and 40s could not escape the visual resemblance of the proposed figure to that of a puppet from a popular children’s TV show in the 1970s produced by the public educational TV service. The idea was fine yet the execution was problematic. The committee has conspicuously missed on that resemblance. People at the TV station were not pleased by the unauthorized copying of the renowned TV icon and claimed for infringement of copyrights. They won 50,000 shekels (~$ 13,000)  in compensation., as well as the banning of the figure presented by the Olympic committee.

In an effort thereafter to recuperate from that failure, and probably already being stressed in time, the committee has decided on adopting a ready-made icon. They initiated an agreement for sponsorship from Osem, a major food producer, that would allow them to use the figure of ‘Baby Bamba’ . Bamba is a popular brand of peanut sweetened snack food for children that has become one of the strongest brands of Osem since the 1980s, at least for children — a proud homegrown Israeli brand, selling well inside Israel and abroad. The figure would have been dressed in a shirt carrying an Olympic variation of the Israeli blue-and-white flag emblem for the occasion. From Osem’s perspective, in return for their sponsorship of 150,000 shekels (~$40,000 ) the figure icon was supposed to be shown in events organized by the Israeli Olympic Committee in Israel and in sites near the Olympic Park but excluded from entering. It would have included the appearance of a man dressed in costume of Baby Bamba. A great exposure opportunity with positive publicity due to the celebrating event.

The public, however, thought otherwise. It has aroused rage mainly among supporters of the social protest against excessive pricing practices of companies in different sectors, particularly big food manufacturers. Activists leading the protest quickly brought examples of over-charged prices specific to Osem. Thereby, the cheerful figure that has become so popular over the years got distanced away. It appears that for many Israelis the attempt to bring Bamba closer to their national identity, the brand has stepped out of the boundaries of its public approval (i.e., where consumers are prepared to find the brand).

About Olympic Sponsorships

The sports and business communities are closely connected through sponsorships of sports teams and leagues, individual athletes, and large-scale sports events — from soccer, basketball and baseball to swimming, tennis, and car racing, just name it. Sponsorships provide essential funding for the staging and organization of many multi-national competitive sports events around the globe, foremost the Olympic Games in the past 30 years. In The Olympic Partners (TOP) programme of the International Olympic Committee currently participate companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and Visa. But sponsorships also help teams and individuals competing in different branches of sports to finance their training, tours and other operations.

Unlike advertising during sports events, sponsorship is about building a relationship in which a business organization enables and supports the activity of a team or an individual over time or the organization of sports events. The sponsor at the Olympics may provide financial funding or it may help by providing services in its domain of expertise (e.g., computerized information systems, construction) without receiving payment for their aid in making the event possible. Companies that provide sponsorship expect to gain by enriching their brands with values of the Olympic sports contests (e.g., aspiring for record achievements, competitiveness, global co-operation) and thus boosting the brand image. The association is developed by public relations news releases, mounting Olympic-related logos on ads and product packages, and showing their own logos during the Olympics on various occasions and scenes.

  • Does it pay off in increasing the revenues of the sponsoring companies? Not always and not as much as companies have wished for, causing disappointment and withdrawal of companies from sponsorships to the Olympics. Companies investing several million dollars on the sponsorship itself may need to complement that with two to three times the amount spent on additional marketing activities to fully leverage the sponsorship.(1) It may also back fire by drawing negative attention to critical and controversial practices of companies (e.g., currently there is demand to cancel the sponsorship by Dow Chemical in London 2012 for providing insufficient compensation and assistance to victims of the Bophal disaster in India in 1984 (2), another critical debate concerns the intention of McDonald’s to build its largest-ever restaurant sitting 1500 visitors in the Olympic Park (1)).

National Olympic teams may also associate themselves with commercial sponsors in their countries (e.g., Anheuser-Busch/Budweiser Beer sponsors the US team, Bell Canada is among sponsors of the Canadian Olympic Committee). This type of sponsorship is appropriate also for Osem when sponsoring the Israeli Olympic team.

A Semi Olympic Sponsorship

But the sponsorship relation with Osem seems to have some unusual characteristics. It looks like it has been twisted to comply with the purpose of the IOC in the first phase of its initiative as described above, suggesting that it is only a sponsorship-like relation.

The Israeli Olympic Committee appears to be much more interested in using the figure-icon of Osem’s brand Bamba than Osem seeking to take benefit of symbols of the Olympic Games in London. Nothing has been said about how Osem and its brand Bamba would employ Olympic symbols. Given its objective, the committee could be expected to actually pay Osem for permission to use the Baby Bamba icon. Yet the idea that a company like Osem would be paid by the national Olympic committee would most surely be rejected even more forcefully. And that may be how a compromise sponsorship deal with Osem has been reached. It is reported that the IOC will keep the money already paid as a “contribution” which raises even more questions about the whole affair (i.e., the relatively low amount, how the money will be used now, and whether Osem is still considered a sponsor). Instead of truly creating sponsorship, both sides applied it only as a mask or disguise to cover the real original objective to nominate an icon to the Israeli Olympic delegation.

It is clearly legitimate to debate whether a national sports team should be sponsored by a business company as opposed to sponsorship of teams and individual players representing only themselves in competitions. As indicated above, national teams can receive financial support by sponsorship. One may certainly also question whether the use of the baby figure of Bamba is appropriate and in good taste. However, such an argument or discontent with commercial practices of the company are not enough to delegitimize the use of the logo of one of its brands unless those practices are evidently illegal or unethical.

Sadly, the Israeli Olympic Committee has taken an awkward chain of actions that put the IOC in a difficult and embarrassing situation. Perhaps it should have been modest and implicit in its display of the baby figure-icon, and avoid symbols reminiscent of the national flag. But that would probably not fulfill the initial objective, and by insisting on “nationalising” the branded baby they probably drew fire at them. And miserably for Osem, they fell into the trap of the social protest.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) “Will Sponsors of the London Olympics Reap Rewards — or Controversy?” Knowledge@Wharton Today, July 26, 2011

(2) “Bophal Victims Urge UK Government to Drop Dow as 2012 Sponsor”, CNN (Internet edition), 29 Feb. 2012

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