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Olympic Sponsors: For the Chinese, Winners and Losers

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A lot was on the line.

The twelve global sponsors shelled out a combined $860 million while national rights cost upwards of $20 million. None of this includes incremental expenses on advertising, on- and off-site events, product supply and other "activation" efforts. As the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing winds down, all eyes are on ROI. Were the millions of dollars forked out by both international and local brands worth it?

The answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no. Olympic sponsorship is a high risk, high return proposition. Conservatism yields disappointment. Harnessed ambition produces results.

What the Best Had to Do. To generate respectable return, irrespective of how return is calculated, an Olympic sponsor should have focused at least 50% of its efforts on the domestic audience with messages tailored to local Chinese. The Middle Kingdom's "new" middle class is 150 million strong. China's "urban mainstream" counts another 300-400 hundred million people, folks who are not awash in disposable income but surf the net and buy mobile phones. In the midst of the biggest spending orgy in marketing history, sponsors also needed to:

First, convey a consistent message that fuses a brand's pre-existing "essence" with the spirit of Beijing 2008, rather than broadcast generic support for the Games or, even worse, pride in official sponsor status. In China, Olympic values are hard-hitting, more about "glory," "victory" and "national greatness" than "universal brotherhood" or "peace amongst nations." Hence, Johnson & Johnson's winning (but, unfortunately, under-executed) platform of "Golden Touch, Golden Mom."

Second, leverage the Olympic platform as an opportunity for mass audiences to plug into -- i.e., participate in, touch, feel, play with -- the brand on the ground. This could have been done with anything from promotions and road shows to virtual communities and retail concepts. Coke, in particular, excelled in this area.

Third, respond to unexpected events, both victories and setbacks, to deepen consumer affection. No one predicted the PRC would win 51 gold medals and no one predicted the sports icon Liu Xiang would start, then quit, the 110 meter hurdles. Anta and Nike, both non-official sponsors, made the most of these moments. (See below.)

Multinationals Score. Overall, international companies outperformed local ones. In terms of messaging, MNCs, blessed with brand equities forged over time, were well positioned to align pre-existing assets with the spirit of Beijing 2008. On the other hand, many local companies were, on balance, promotionally resourceful, pushing deeper into the Chinese hinterland to sell product. But sales thrusts were tactical; they will do little to build long-term equity.

So who did well? Coke realized the most fully-rounded sponsorship. Practically all television, print and outdoor advertising were beautifully executed, visually and tonally. Its shuang qi lai -- "refreshment rising" -- tagline managed the hat trick of: a) aligning functional and emotional benefits (i.e., thirst-quenching and spiritual satisfaction), b) rooting an Olympic message in historic Coke territories of "bottle equity" and "joyful moments in life" and c) blending the brand's character with soft-edged Chinese nationalism, a key driver of China's emotional investment in the Games. Its Torch Relay sponsorship, not to mention ancillary activation efforts, touched hundreds of millions of hearts. Locally-tailored programs (e.g., a bottle design competitions, on-line "Make a Coke Wish" promotions) also enabled consumers to directly participate in the excitement. Finally, Beijing's "Coke World" retail store set new standards in experiential marketing.

Adidas also did a fairly good job. Its advertising elegantly fused the brand's "Impossible is Nothing" rallying crying with Chinese Olympic glory, although creative power petered out during the Games. Achievements of previous medalists -- the company's athletes did not do well this year -- were presented as the manifestation of national unity, China's ultimate competitive advantage. The brand's retail concept was also a winner. An Olympic "shoe wall," covering a broad range of sports and executed with calligraphic flourish, will facilitate future expansion beyond soccer, running and basketball.

Other MNC sponsors acquitted themselves with grace. Both General Electric and UPS linked their goods and services to operational triumph. GE went one step further by comparing its high-tech products' graceful, environmentally-friendly designs with the performance of Chinese athletes, highlighting the company's role in promoting a "green Olympics."

The efforts of Visa, Samsung, Budweiser and McDonald's, however, were a hodgepodge of unrelated promotions and product pushes. Post-Olympics, they are neither stronger nor weaker than they were before.

Some Local Companies Stand Up. On the domestic front (amongst official sponsors), Lenovo's efforts were robust, albeit sometimes thematically bland. The company reinforced technological and international credibility, an important objective for a local brand hoping to become China's first true multinational. Ads targeted to local consumers highlighted Lenovo's technological prowess as critical to the Games' operational efficiency. Global work was too fluffy -- the Olympics were described as history's greatest "idea" - but, in airports and on the street, ads were ubiquitous and generated a sense of scale. Furthermore, Think Pad laptops were featured in practically every CCTV broadcast, reinforcing hi-tech, global heft. Most impressive was the company's Torch Run sponsorship and concurrent promotions of low-price computers that took place at the gates of third-, fourth- and fifth-tier cities.

Yili's "strong China" campaign -- some executions used Liu Xiang and others did not -- linked milk's health benefits with national ambition. According to R3, a communications consultancy, the work resulted in high sponsorship awareness at the expense of Meng Niu, the other leading local dairy brand and aggressive non-sponsor. Had Yili integrated this message with on-the-ground promotions and digital initiatives, results could have been even stronger.

Some Fall Down. Most local brands -- for example, China Mobile, Bank of China and Haier -- resorted to propagandistic celebration ads and clunky product promotions. Qingdao beer spent $40 million to broadcast chest-thumping claims of global popularity. Yanjing beer's efforts were also embarrassingly content-free. The Games' worst sponsor was Heng Yuan Xiang, a wool and textile manufacturer. Their inane television commercial, sixty seconds long, was divided into five-second sections in which the company's name was shouted along with the whinnies, barks and bleets of Chinese calendar animals. It caused a public outcry; enraged netizens demanded a boycott.

Local enterprises were, as always, handicapped by: a) hierarchical decision-making and sensitivity to political correctness, b) the lack of an empowered marketing department equipped with budgetary control, c) absence of consumer research to determine consistent messaging and d) inadequate attention to communication material/production quality. These hurdles, largely structural and cultural, will continue to impede domestic brands from achieving robust brand equity - i.e., consumer loyalty that sustains a price premium - after the Games. It is indeed a pity that, from a branding and marketing perspective, Beijing 2008 did not usher in a new era of international professionalism; progress will continue at a slow pace, in an (excruciatingly) incremental manner.

Ambush Effectiveness. Finally, it is worth nothing that some of the most impressive Olympic efforts were undertaken by non-sponsors. China Merchant's Bank, by coincidence or design no one knows, highlighted "harmony" (he), the same theme as the spectacularly well-received opening ceremony.

Athletic wear manufacturers did nicely. Nike, Li Ning and Anta -- the latter two large local brands -- tapped into the spirit of Beijing 2008 without crossing ethical intellectual property lines. Nike's efforts were, in a Western sense, typically individualistic (a bold "competition comes first"). Time will tell whether the message resonated deeply with the public, particularly society's more conservative strata. However, its response to Liu Xiang's withdrawal from the 110 meter hurdle race was brilliant. Riding a wave of mass sympathy, Nike quickly produced an ad that turned his failure into something approaching heroism: "Because I love sports," it said, "I love the pain that comes with sports." Nike applied balm to a nation's wounded pride without debasing its brand's values.

When Li Ning flew into the Bird's Nest to light the Olympic flame, he won the gold for ambush marketing. From airing TVCs featuring former Chinese Olympians to designing the Spanish team's (red and yellow!) open ceremony costumes, the company's other efforts were broad but unfocused. Its early ads were all over the place. Li Ning logos adorned the apparel of scattered Chinese teams, including men's and women's gymnastics, diving and ping pong. (Each of the sports was quintessentially Chinese, consistent with the company's advocacy of "a Chinese style of play." ) In the end, however, China is a country that reveres big stars and grand display, so the magic torch moment made up for fragmentation.

Anta, the nation's largest producer of sports shoes and apparel but less well known than Li Ning, also made its mark. (Full disclosure: Anta is a JWT client.) Its brand vision, "Keep Moving," morphed into a primal declaration of national perseverance in the lead up to the Olympics -- i.e., during the anti-Chinese protests that took place in France and Britain and after the Sichuan earthquake -- and throughout the games themselves. Anta was also the only company to quickly produce merchandise that glorified China's 51 gold medals.

On to London. So, was Olympic sponsorship worth it? For Coke, a sponsor that married brand vision with the spirit of 2008 while maximizing on-the-ground consumer engagement, the answer is "yes." For many others, the Games were a money pit filled with disjointed efforts that allowed ambush marketers to steal thunder.

Let's hope London 2012's sponsors learned a few lessons here in Beijing.