The 32nd Olympic Games has been one of the trickiest for organisers and sponsors to navigate. First planned for 2020, it was rescheduled to 2021 when the worst of the Covid pandemic was expected to be past.
But the run up to the games has been anything but smooth. Covid has spread through the Tokyo Olympic Village, with 106 athletes contracting the virus to date. Tokyo, which is hosting the competition, is under a fourth Covid state of emergency. The event has lost support from even its strongest advocates, including Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has said he will not attend. As public opposition has mounted, sponsors have looked to distance themselves from the event. Top partners from Toyota and Coca-Cola have dialled back ads and activations in Japan. Most sponsors are focusing their marketing efforts outside the host country.
Adding further controversy, the director of the opening ceremony, Kentaro Kobayashi, was fired on its eve (July 22) over a joke he made about the Holocaust. Today’s (July 23) opening ceremony is expected to be a toned-down version of what was originally planned.
Against this backdrop, Campaign Asia-Pacific asks brand analysts and sports marketing experts whether the Tokyo Olympics could cause irreparable damage to institution, and whether this year’s event could dampen sponsorship appetite for the Olympics in the future.
How much damage has Tokyo done to the Olympics brand?
Joanne Warnes, MD of SEA & India, Octagon:
The Olympics brand equity has been built over many decades to shape the Olympic Movement which we all know today. Together, Tokyo and the Covid-19 pandemic present a challenge for the Olympics brand and how it may be perceived in the future. While concerns remain, if the Tokyo Games are delivered successfully and in full, the brand’s integrity and equity will remain intact. However, if things don’t turn out well, the Olympics brand could potentially find itself having to face decades of recovery for seemingly putting dollars before the safety of athletes, organisers, volunteers and the local people of Japan. It’s currently in an unenviable position with ever-changing circumstances where decisions, favourable or not, will need to be made. It’s only with time and the decisions eventually taken, that a true assessment of any damage to the Olympics brand can be made.
Dipanjan Chatterjee, VP and principal analyst, Forrester:
Without a doubt, this is a tumultuous Olympic Games, but the equity of the Olympics brand is extremely strong, with a rich and storied legacy. The brand is especially beloved because unlike many professional sports tainted by an excess of money, the spirit of amateur competition, and of ordinary people striving for extraordinary things, is eminently more relatable.
Yes, there is queasiness about these Games, but most sponsors are holding strong (perhaps they see little option after sinking so much time and effort into it). For some, it is strategic to back off. For example, Toyota is pulling ads in its home market of Japan because the sensitivity is highest there, and the look for a Japanese brand to sally forth is not a good one. Also remember, everybody is well aware of the strange times we find ourselves in, and barring a catastrophic spread linked to the games, consumers will have no reservations in cutting the Tokyo Games some slack. Notice that despite a 60,000 strong audience for the Euro 2020 final at Wembley and the Delta variant raging in the UK, the tournament remains unblemished.
Malcolm Thorpe, managing director Southeast Asia, Sportfive Asia:
The Olympics brand has in recent years been subjected to deeper scrutiny for a variety of reasons—ranging from sustainability, host cities selection, athletes rights, to accountability and transparency of the IOC. However, despite the various criticisms, there is no denying that the Olympics still represents the pinnacle for most sports for athletes and fans, and this will continue to hold true for Tokyo and beyond.
While the public sentiment in Japan has been generally opposed to holding the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics because of fears that the event will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases in the host country, this is primarily a local issue, and we haven’t seen much of an anti-Olympics movement anywhere else. Globally, the Olympics will move on, especially with the next event scheduled in China in only a few months’ time.
While holding a major games in the midst of a global pandemic could be seen as controversial, the opportunity of seeing the world’s best athletes in action in these difficult times should not be taken for granted and more importantly, should serve as a timely reminder for the greater sporting community of the balances that need to be in place for sports to thrive in the foreseeable new normal.
Janice Siu, MD of APAC growth, Landor & Fitch:
It’s hard to measure now. Navigating the many factors and stakeholders involved in a given sporting event has proven to be difficult, and the Olympics is a unique brand in the sporting world. What the Covid situation has presented to the Olympics is the opportunity to look forward to rethink and adopt a more agile approach, better enabled by technology, embedded with sustainability and adapted to society as a recipe for success.
Arnold Ma, founder, Qumin:
It reflects worse on Tokyo rather than the Olympics brand—cases are rising there and they have been pushing for it to go ahead. The Olympics rely heavily on how well the host country organises the event, so it will be affecting the fame of the country, instead of the games itself.
I think it’s a huge positive that Winter 2022 will be in China, a good move for the Olympics brand. I’m confident it will be a huge success and provide an example of how an Olympic event can be run during a pandemic. This will further isolate any negative connotations to Tokyo rather than the Olympic brand itself. China is known for being able to host large-scale events extremely efficiently, taking full advantage of a centralised government and being able to pull in huge manpower to ensure organisation and order. Further, China has been Covid-free for several months—largely due to the way they contained the spread of the virus, prevention over cure. All of this will bring more positive equity to the Olympic brand.
Michael R. Payne, chairman and CEO, Payne Sports Media Strategies:
In the short-term, we can only honestly judge after the games, as once Japan starts winning gold medals, mood in the country is likely to dramatically change. Internationally the focus will be on the athletes and great sport—and that is what will have the greatest impact on the Olympic brand. Potentially the games taking place against the backdrop of a global pandemic, could even reinforce the unique Olympic brand values of uniting the world under a celebration of humanity.
Norm O’Reilly, dean of Graduate School of Business, University of Maine:
I honestly think the games are going to come out with a stronger brand. The world needs a good story and they have a very well-designed bubble set up. These have worked for professional sport (even before we had vaccines) and with the IOC and Tokyo organisers planning and resources, I’m confident. So, any negativity will be, in my view, far outpaced by the positivity of the world. Many people on stay-at-home orders will see the games, their countries compete, their flags in the opening ceremonies. I see it as the role of the games and believe this to be the case.
Will this affect Olympics sponsorship in the long haul?
The Olympics and partnership with the Games, will always remain an attractive proposition to brands – what it represents as a celebration of sporting greatness on a global stage, as a symbol of hope, unity and solidarity. That said, naturally many existing partners will continue to review the impact of Tokyo, on how they plan and activate in the future. Undoubtedly even now, they would be engaging in discussions around re-appraising sponsorship rights and assets. For new partners, the past 12 – 18 months and what we’ve seen and experienced in the form of numerous major events such as the Euros, Formula 1, the impending Olympics and the tennis Grand Slams, provides a path for learning, observing and shaping new thinking and approaches to partnerships.
No, it will not. The way to think of a brand’s equity is to think of it as a bank balance. There is a long history of deposits into the Olympics brand account. Some withdrawals may pose a temporary stumble but the overall balance is strong. And given the unusual circumstances of these times, it is likely that deposits will resume once we reach some stability with the pandemic. Since I do not expect the Olympics equity to be affected in the long haul, I fully expect sponsors to remain equally excited in the future.
Regardless of the differing views from various parties regarding the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics 2020, the Olympic Games remains as one of the key sports marketing platforms for brands to engage a worldwide audience. As an historic sporting spectacle that celebrates the achievements and stories of athletes from nations big and small, the Olympic Games will remain a unique avenue for brands in the long run.
With the games taking place in the midst of a global pandemic, many of the Olympic sponsors had to take a cautious approach when supporting the games due to the sensitivities and public perception surrounding the event, especially in Japan. Brands that are involved will need to be spot on with their engagement and activation tactics, to cater to the ever-evolving landscape, with different approaches for different markets depending on the current local status of the pandemic.
In the mid- to long-term, the Olympics brand will retain its value for brands as long as it is able to retain the massive audiences that have historically followed the event. With the changing ways that fans consume and watch sports, brands will need to be creative in their messaging and take a multi-channel approach (through TV, bite-sized content, social media feeds etc.) to find ways to be present at every step of a fan’s journey moving forward.
No major sporting event has been immune to Covid—from fan-less football stadiums to the NBA bubble, one thing we’ve seen successful brands do is adapt. The fundamental goal of sponsorship in sports has remained unchanged, but brands are definitely looking to transform their approach to sponsorship. Adjusting for a hybrid of digital and in-person interactions is a must as we look to planning future sporting events. Over the long haul, successful sponsorships will integrate the sporting spirit with innovative digital activations in order to enhance the fan experience in an even more engaging way.
Beijing will be the start of the revival of the Olympic brand, and 33rd games in Paris are long enough away for us to, hopefully, be clear of Covid. It will always be a high-profile event and will always attract big sponsors. More so, Chinese brands have the cash to take the sponsorship spots, as we’ve seen from events like the recent Euros. If Western brands are either risk-averse or recovering from the pandemic, Chinese brands will surely step up!
Remember for the Olympics, most of the partners are out long-term, through 2028 or even 2032, with a great set of future host cities from Paris, LA to Brisbane. The strength of the Olympic brand is in many ways its resilience over the past 125 years—no matter what is thrown at it, from politics to boycotts, to scandals—to still pull through even stronger than ever.
The excitement for the future of sponsorship is clear. The Olympics has been slow to move from traditional (ie. venue signage, samples at venues) to cool digital activations on social, television, streaming and web channels. The games attract a few hundred thousand visitors (normally) but reachs 4 billion—yes, billion—people around the globe via other channels. This is the interest to most sponsors and now they’ll focus their resources there. Just wait til 2022 Beijing to see the results of this.