A Mini issue becomes a big deal at the London Olympics

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The latest marketing-related mini-scandal has hit the Olympics. This time the culprit is BMW and its Mini brand. Bloomberg News is reporting that people are in uproar over the use of one-quarter scale, radio-controlled versions of the iconic British car—a mini Mini (sorry I couldn’t help myself)—to shuttle javelins and hammers back-and-forth to the track and field athletes as they compete inside the Olympic Stadium. Apparently we’ve moved on from focusing on non-sponsors leveraging the Olympics in interesting ways to build their brands to what’s happening inside the games themselves.

The problem isn’t with the use of a BMW-owned brand—it is the official automobile sponsor of the London Games, providing cars to transport athletes to medal ceremonies and take blood samples to testing facilities, and paying a hefty fee for the privilege. The problem is that some are complaining that this extremely clever use of the Mini brand is in violation of the apparently-sacred Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which states that “commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia.”

The radio-controlled Minis in question carry no logos or branding, no marketing messages and are wrapped in the London Olympics brand identity. The only thing Mini is guilty of is having such a distinct and iconic design that the cars are unmistakably derived from Mini, a fact that BMW is doing nothing to hide or deflect. That’s fine by me. In my opinion, BMW and Mini should be doing everything they can to get more mileage out of this brilliant use of brand.

The Mini brand is an undeniably British icon with a distinct Brand Voice™ that is clever, playful and bold. You see the Mini brand voice come through in everything from messaging and advertising to the features you can get when you purchase a new car. In fact, Mini is one of my favorite examples to use when talking to clients about the power of a distinct and authentic brand voice.

That Mini has found such a clever way to use its brand at these Olympic Games in its “hometown” should be celebrated and studied by brands around the world as an example of the right way to create a brand experience that speaks to the heart of what the brand stands for. I’d imagine the brouhaha over this supposed violation of Olympic rules is mostly coming from advertisers and brand managers who wish they had thought of something this smart, or managed brands with voice and personality that lent themselves to being used in such memorable ways.

As for the question if this use of the Mini brand actually violated the spirit of Olympic rule 50, I’ll leave that up to the spectators themselves, as they watch the mini Mini’s shuttling javelins to athletes, eat their McDonald’s, drink their Cokes and Heinekens and check out Usain Bolt’s 200 meter time on the official Omega time clock.

Dan Katz-Golden is a senior strategist for Siegel+Gale’s New York office.

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