The challenge of branding the Olympics.

With just 24 hours to go, it is difficult not to think this is going to be the best Olympic Games ever as the media build up reaches a crescendo, and the omnipresent red white and blue of the Union Jack makes our collective chests swell with pride.

London 2012 is here and no matter your geographic location, if your country is competing, you will likely feel some ownership of the Games as generations before have done.

With today’s consumers forming a growing global tribe of digital storytellers, London 2012 will be the first truly connected, shared Games.

And therein lies the challenge for brand sponsors – how to build brand affinity with the Olympics, protecting your investment, when the event is perceived as one of global ownership?

These will be the most seen Olympics the world has ever experienced. The BBC will provide live streams of every event guaranteeing significant exposure for sponsors and, with price tags of £100m paid for official rights, this is a commercial investment worth protecting.

As The Guardian reported in April, this Olympics sees the strictest restrictions ever implemented to protect sponsors’ brands and broadcasting rights, affecting every athlete, ticket holder and UK business.

LOCOG have duly set guidelines prohibiting non-sponsors from explicitly “Supporting our athletes at the 2012 Games” and, indeed, suggesting any association with the Olympics. These rules are in anticipation that everyone will want their piece of the action and savvy brands will have long been plotting guerilla marketing activity, inspired by the likes of Nike at Atlanta ’96.

Intended to protect the commercial interests of those that have paid big for the privilege of linking to the Games, restrictions come in many forms, some examples including:

The Ricoh arena reports its preparations include covering all non-sponsor logos even those on washroom hand dryers .

Using the words Games, Twenty-Twelve, 2012 in conjunction with London, medals, sponsors or summer is banned.

Avoiding images such as the Olympic torch, athletic scenes and Olympic Ring colour combinations.

Limits will be applied to what you eat at the Games with McDonald’s being the only restaurateur allowed to sell branded food.

It’s not just branding inside of, or on the way to, the stadia that falls under scrutiny. With Coca Cola and Adidas as key sponsors, woe betide Mo Farrah if he tweets about the glorious refreshment of Pepsi or tags his Puma trainers on his Facebook page. Social media platforms will be tricky waters to navigate when limiting unauthorised advertising as, by their very nature, they represent the democracy and deregulation of technology and communication today.

To attempt to combat the implications of this, a social media policy has been created by the IOC forbidding athletes posting about non-Olympic sponsor brands. Alex Huot, the IOC’s head of social media highlights “London 2012 will ignite the first conversational Olympic Games”. This means some policing is necessary to protect the sponsorship brands’ interests, for example, Twitter barring non-sponsors from buying promoted ads with #London2012 hashtags.

So what to do?

For brands to gain from their sponsorship and enjoy the halo effect of association, it is recommended they actively manage their messaging across all media channels, both on and offline, and invite consumers to join them in the conversation rather than simply push messages ‘out there’.

Looking at the investment at stake, nobody would blame a brand for insisting on measures to ensure its synonymity with the Games but with Smartphones at close to 50% penetration in the UK alone and Facebook boasting 800 million users, they will have their work cut out controlling how and when their brand is seen.

The world of brand sponsorship has changed forever and embracing the social revolution allows brands to apply communication strategies to leverage their presence at the Games through engaging with consumers on an even playing field. Companies can and will do their best to control how their brand is seen, but how consumers feel about it and interact with it during the Games will be their own making and brands will do well to remember that. Ultimately, their brand power lies with the people.

Good luck to all.