As the 2008 Olympic Games approach, sponsors are figuring out how to capitalize on the event's location in one of the world's hottest markets. "It is the most critical commercial sporting event in our lifetime, any lifetime," said Greg Paull, principal of marketing consultancy R3 in Beijing.
Race for endorsers
Marketers are already in a tug-of-war over China's top athletes. With multiple sponsors to please, Chinese track-and-field champion Liu Xiang is designing pins for Coca-Cola's Olympic promotion and racing a kangaroo in Australia in a Visa International spot by BBDO Shanghai, the first Olympic efforts by both those marketers. Mr. Liu also has deals with Nike, China Mobile and China's top dairy producer, Yili.
Lenovo, probably the most aggressive Olympic marketer to date in China, views "the Games as a crucial symbol of national pride that shows they are truly China's global company," Mr. Paull said. Lenovo got an early start on its estimated $80 million investment, hosting internet lounges and sponsoring 11 athletes at the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, earlier this year.
Adidas: fast mover
Another fast-mover is Adidas, the only brand-licensee partner for the Games, which means other sponsors can give away products co-branded with the Olympic logo, but only Adidas can sell them. Adidas introduced its first co-branded retail products, such as clothes and caps, at its Chinese stores earlier this year. The company is paying more than $80 million in cash and services, and it's investing millions more in Games-related marketing and business-development activities led by Erica Kerner, director of its Beijing 2008 Olympics Program. Adidas has to make sure it stands out from global rival Nike and local rival Li Ning, who aren't official Olympics sponsors but back some of China's top athletes and Olympic teams.
"Being a sportswear sponsor of a sporting event makes it easier and more difficult for us compared to other sponsors," Ms. Kerner said. "We have to be smarter and more strategic in how we do it, so consumers remember our message and that we are the official partner."
Coke vs. Pepsi
Coca-Cola's Olympic sponsorship will help it take on PepsiCo in China, where Pepsi connects with Chinese youth through hip marketing and deals with Asian pop stars such as Jay Chou. The Coca-Cola 2008 Olympic pin program, started in August, lets consumers design and trade Olympic-theme pins, including a design contest called "Show China to the World" in which Chinese nominate local landmarks that capture the spirit and traditions of their hometowns for pins. Mr. Liu has designed three pins.
For Visa, the Olympics are a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the card market as it opens in China," Mr. Paull said. Awareness about how credit cards work is low in China. But that's likely to change.
Burgeoning travel market
"As the Chinese economy grows rapidly, overseas travel has become increasingly popular with consumers," said Richard Chang, Visa's exec VP-general manager, Greater China.
Not all marketers are planning ahead. Haier, one of the largest white-goods producers in China, has national-sponsor status -- one step below partner. Although an aspiring global brand and one of China's most experienced overseas manufacturers, Haier's success so far has depended more on low prices and widespread distribution through retailers such as Wal-Mart than on marketing.
"In theory, Haier is going to use the games as leverage for branding, marketing and communication," said an executive at one of Haier's ad agencies in China. "We are not sure if there is a marketing platform for using the Games. The marketing function is weak, if not nil, in Haier."