February 13, 2006

Brand Police Sweep Turin Games Clean

By Nelson Graves

TURIN -- Unassuming Barbara Salmoiraghi is in the front lines of a swat team that can make frenzied beer-guzzling men take their hats off.

"Marketing, marketing. Base calling," she barks into a walkie-talkie. "Section 114. Ten guys wearing Heineken hats!"

The dark-haired Turin resident is part of the brand police keeping the Winter Olympics venues commercially pure.

Sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Samsung and Visa spend millions to underpin the Games. But in one of the crowning ironies of business, the Olympic Charter prevents them from displaying their familiar logos in the "field of play."

The rules are supposed to keep non-paying rivals honest and out of sight. But the history of the Games is full of tales of "ambush marketing" -- non-sponsors trying to grab a slice of Olympic gold on the cheap.

Customs sleuths at Milan's airport recently confiscated crates of imported clothing bearing the Torino 2006 logo but made by non-licensed manufacturers.

Turin police fined a restaurant that rebaptised itself Olympic Bar and adopted the Games' five-ring emblem.

Both the International Olympic Committee and the local TOROC organizers have special brand teams to protect the Olympic name and those of its 62 partners, sponsors and suppliers.

"We want it to be perfect -- no branding at all," said IOC marketing executive Davis Butler.


TOROC and the IOC deploy a small army of employees, volunteers, lawyers and contractors to inspect the venues, trawl through newspapers, watch television and surf the Internet.

The rules are tough.

No logos are allowed inside the venues except for those on official equipment or athletes' uniforms.

Even that is regulated -- no logo on athletes' clothing can be more than 20 square centimeters (three square inches). Spectators can cover over-size logos with tape, remove the clothing -- or leave.

The brand protectors go to great lengths. Tape covers logos on the soap dispensers in the bathrooms of the Palavela rink.

In the souvenir store in the Turin athletes' village, price stickers cover the logos on the laptops at the payout counter.

A reporter in a press tribune was made to place her bottle of Sant'Anna water under the table. For the thirsty, Olympics partner Coca-Cola provides free water -- in no-logo bottles.

During the first two days of competition at the Oval Lingotto speedskating rink, Barbara Salmoiraghi and her four-person team were busy policing clothing and signs.

A man holding up a sign directing fans to assemble at that spot had to put it away -- it had Ernst & Young on it.

A reporter had to take off sunglasses during a news conference -- the fashion label was too visible.

When Salmoiraghi calls her colleague Sabina on the walkie-talkie, she shouts: "Get the guys with the Heineken hats in Section 114 to turn them around."

A quick trip to Section 114 shows hundreds of fans, many with beer in hand, cheering loudly. By that time, the Heineken hats are gone.

(Additional reporting by Jane Barrett, Pritha Sarkar and Alan Crosby in Turin)