Apple’s Rio Watch bands dodge official Olympics sponsorship

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Smooth move, Apple! Smooth move.
Photo: Trayvon Bromell/Twitter

Apple’s decision to sell national flag-themed Apple Watch bands exclusively in Rio may look like an official Olympics tie-in, but it’s actually a smart bit of guerrilla marketing that’s having the (unintentional?) side effect of drawing attention away from rival Samsung, a.k.a. the official phone sponsor of the Olympic games.

Apple is selling its bands — which are nylon straps bearing the colors of the national flags for all 14 major Rio competitors — at an Apple Store six miles away from the main Olympics park. Top Olympics sponsors regularly shell out $100 million over four years to the International Olympic Committee for exclusive marketing rights to the event. Apple, however, has done no such thing.

That hasn’t stopped the straps from appearing on the wrists of several Olympics competitors, including Team USA sprinter Trayvon Bromell, though. While the Olympics committee frown on the marketing of non-official sponsor products during the Games, Bromell shared his photo on Twitter six days before the stipulated “blackout period” started.

“As long as [Apple] do not use the Olympic logo, the Rio 2016 logo or our look, there is no infringement,” Sylmara Multini, director of licensing and retail for the Rio 2016 organizing committee, told Reuters.

“While they don’t appear to be breaking any rules, they appear to be getting really close to the edge of ambush or guerilla marketing,” said Jeff Benz, a a former general counsel at the U.S. Olympic Committee who who arbitrates disputes for international dispute-resolution firm JAMS.

Here in 2016, Apple may be far from the scrappy underdog that it once was — back when it was prodding genuine giants like IBM and Microsoft — but moves like this shows it’s still got some of that sneaky “think different” approach to marketing.

And, hey, even a company with the cash reserves that Apple does can’t be too upset about saving a cool $100 million!