Beijing: Same city, different times

Spectators and visitors to the Beijing Winter Games will be limited to a select group within China. getty images

When Beijing first hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, it was seen as the coming-out party for China. The arrival of the Games promised to introduce a new economic powerhouse to the world — and a potential goldmine to global brands.

“The message was that China is open for business, China is modern, China is part of the world community. There are 1.3 billion consumers here waiting for you,” said T Burns Sports Group founder and CEO Terrence Burns, who was the lead brand and marketing adviser for the 2008 Beijing Olympic bid. That opportunity attracted unprecedented investment from Olympic sponsors, which collectively spent a reported $2 billion on Games-related activations.

With the Olympics on the verge of returning to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games, the difference from 2008 is stark. Human rights issues, while certainly a concern in 2008, are now at the forefront as nations around the world question China’s treatment of its Uyghur ethnic minority population. Increasing politicization around the Games in the United States — from the nation’s diplomatic boycott to Olympic sponsors being questioned by Congress — poses an additional challenge for brands. 

And that’s to say nothing of the many challenges facing athletes, who must contend with cybersecurity concerns and diminished commercial opportunities, or the impact of COVID-19 that alone would have put Beijing among the most complex sports marketing challenges in history.

Perhaps it’s little surprise, then, that some Olympics stakeholders have long been ready to throw in the towel and move on to the 2024 Games in France. “There are economic impacts, and there are reputation impacts,” said one Olympic marketer. “And that makes it really hard, so sponsors are saying, ‘I don’t want to be involved with it. Let’s skip Beijing and hope Paris comes very soon.’”

China: Then vs. now

Some 14 years ago, China was just emerging as an economic power in its own right. “Most of the Chinese companies and brands, nobody had heard of them internationally,” said former International Olympic Committee marketing boss Michael Payne, who helped design Beijing 2008’s initial marketing plan. “Everybody was talking about when would China engage with sports, and there’s no question the Beijing Games were a catalyst to introducing sports marketing to China.”

In 2004, Lenovo had become the first Chinese company to join the IOC’s global TOP sponsorship program. It stayed on for just four years, departing after the conclusion of the Beijing Games. Today, Chinese tech giant Alibaba is in the midst of an 11-year Olympic sponsorship that covers six Games, and its cloud services are increasingly vital to IOC broadcast arm Olympic Broadcasting Services. Coca-Cola now shares its IOC sponsorship category with the China Mengniu Dairy Co. And beyond the Olympics, Chinese brands such as Huawei and Hisense have constructed global portfolios of sports sponsorship rights.

“China was still learning and was far from being a global market leader [in 2008],” said Payne, who represented both Alibaba and Mengniu in their IOC negotiations. “You fast-track forward now 14 years, and in multiple industry sectors, it’s not that they’re producing for some other Western brand. They are the market leader, they are the innovator.”

Red Bull is among the sponsors of American short track speedskater Maame Biney. red bull

Marketing buzz

China remains a major priority for global brands, though it may be hard to tell heading into the 2022 Beijing Games. Despite collectively spending billions of dollars to align with the Olympic brand, the IOC’s global partners have thus far been reluctant to promote the upcoming Winter Games, a stark contrast from the fanfare surrounding the Games in 2008.

“Investing in the Olympics in China was a vote of confidence in China,” said sports marketing consultant Ricardo Fort, who in 2008 was in a marketing role with Coca-Cola, where he later ran global sponsorships from 2016 until last year. “It was almost a demand from the Chinese government: ‘If you want to do business here, show us that you like us and promote as much as you can the Olympic Games.’ So that’s what companies did. I think it was the most expensive consumer activation that sponsors have done in any Olympics.”

For those paying attention to the space, it’s been jarring how quiet Olympic sponsors have been in the run-up to Beijing 2022. Coca-Cola has said it won’t run a global campaign around the Games, and other brands have yet to deploy advertising on television or activations on social media.

“Sponsors are afraid of becoming too exposed to criticism by being out there with brand campaigns too early,” said Fort. “A lot of brands are postponing or have postponed the start of their activation. … This is the time where you normally would have P&G and Coke and Visa promoting it nonstop in banks and supermarkets. And there’s nothing, it’s just quiet.”

Burns, who founded marketing firm Helios Partners and had an office in Beijing from 2004 to 2009, cautioned that some critical components of Olympic marketing, like the TOP sponsors running full campaigns within China, will generally proceed as planned. Other sources point out that the Winter Games will always have less fanfare than their Summer counterpart, and that Olympic sponsors routinely need to adjust to external factors, even if the Beijing Games force an extreme level of caution.

“China is still a very important market for some of the big companies,” said Basia Wojcik, vice president of sports for creative agency The Marketing Arm, which has worked with Procter & Gamble since the start of its Olympic sponsorship in 2010. “Multinational corporations are used to tailoring their messages to different audiences in different countries, so they do that for each cycle and for each Games.”


The new game plan for Olympic brands has also included a distancing from China in marketing campaigns, a stark contrast from past Games where Olympic activations have typically included nods to the host nation. That was true even in 2008, despite concerns that year over the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. Chinese flourishes appeared in ads for McDonald’s, Omega and Visa, which featured Yao Ming and Jackie Chan in its campaign.

This year, ad campaigns will instead put the focus on athlete stories. A similar shift in strategy has also been apparent for Olympics broadcaster NBC. In 2008, the network’s Olympic promos featured pagodas and the Great Wall. This year’s run-up to the Winter Games has instead showcased stars like Mikaela Shiffrin and Nathan Chen. “We are going to be focusing on telling the stories of Team USA and covering the competition,” said NBC’s Molly Solomon during a recent press briefing.

“What you’re seeing is that China is really absent because of all the political tensions, the diplomatic boycotts, the human rights issues that have come front and center,” said one longtime Olympic marketer. “What you’re not seeing is the China-ising of the global campaigns that you would have seen back in 2008.”

An even more subtle distancing was highlighted by Fort, who pointed out that many sponsors will use the Olympic rings in advertising rather than the logo for the Beijing Games.

Coke’s Shuang Experience Center drew more than 200,000 visitors during the 2008 Summer Games.getty images


Any comparison of 2022 to 2008 cannot ignore the impact of COVID-19, which from an Olympic marketing standpoint has perhaps most affected what stakeholders are able to accomplish on the ground in China. “COVID has changed the hospitality dynamic, which has always been an important and expensive tool in the TOP partner toolbox,” said Burns. “That’s all changed, of course, due to the spectator limitations.”

Hospitality efforts in 2008 were astounding. According to the IOC’s marketing report from Beijing 2008, Coca-Cola’s Shuang Experience Center drew over 200,000 visitors, and Omega’s exhibition area hosted more than 35,000 people daily. Then-sponsor McDonald’s flew in more than 200 children from around the world to experience the Games.

“You’re losing one of the most valuable assets if you can’t bring your customers from around the world and use the power of Olympic and Paralympic hospitality to drive incremental sales,” said Michael Lynch, who was IOC sponsor Visa’s head of global sponsorship marketing when the Olympics were previously in China. Lynch said the payment services company had an “enormous program” for Beijing 2008 that included assets at three different hotels.

Sources said that this year brands at least avoided deploying any resources toward Beijing hospitality, a contrast from last year’s Tokyo Games, where several TOP sponsors had constructed on-site activations prior to fans ultimately being barred from attending. In the coming weeks, some of those companies will instead turn their focus to stateside efforts, with Toyota and P&G among those aligning with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s plans to host athlete friends and families in Park City, Utah.

Athletes and their management

The loss of those hospitality assets is also a blow to athletes. Not only do activations like the P&G family home offer creature comforts to Olympians and their families, but having direct access to sponsors can be critical to athlete earnings opportunities.

Peter Carlisle, Octagon managing director of Olympics and action sports, who in 2008 represented athletes including swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, said brand activity for the first Beijing Games was like a “feeding frenzy.” He estimated that Ocatgon’s average Olympian that year generated around 25% of their income from agreements negotiated on-site in China. “In 2008 I probably had a dozen people there just in my group, and we weren’t sleeping,” said Carlisle. “That is when you create opportunities for these athletes.”

Carlisle said the total pool of athlete sponsorship money is bigger today, but he expects a fraction of the on-the-ground value will be available to athletes this year: “It’s not like they’re going to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to spend it all in Park City.’”

Denege Prudhomme, Stanton & Co. vice president of client management, who along with agency CEO Amy Stanton represents short track speedskater Maame Biney, snowboarder Jamie Anderson and freestyle skier Jaelin Kauff, said that new deals may get done during the Games but losing on-the-ground access to brands makes it more challenging. It also remains to be seen how anticipated low viewership numbers and competition from the Super Bowl may create publicity headwinds for potential breakout stars like figure skater Alysa Liu, snowboarder Dusty Henrickson and Biney, who made her Olympic debut in 2018 and enters Beijing with a strong sponsor roster featuring the likes of Visa, P&G, Panasonic, Delta and Red Bull.

Athletes also must contend with data security concerns that didn’t exist in 2008, which was just one year after the debut of the original iPhone. An advisory from the USOPC suggests that Team USA athletes leave their personal devices at home and instead use a burner phone to manage the Beijing Games’ required mobile app. It’s yet unclear exactly what, if any, access athletes will have to a free internet in China, where platforms like Twitter and Instagram are typically unavailable.

“We are in the process of working with the USOPC and NGBs to determine the best course of action when it comes to communicating with our athletes,” said Prudhomme. “Especially when it comes to sponsor obligations that they have while in Beijing like social media posts, media requests and virtual appearances.”

Social media

And indeed, few things have changed as much as social media since 2008. Facebook was still in its infancy during the first Beijing Games, and Twitter had been founded just two years earlier. Instagram wouldn’t debut until 2010.

Jay Bavishi, who as Twitter’s head of quadrennial events is tasked with overseeing the company’s global efforts for events like the Olympics and World Cup, reflected that the ability to share multimedia was relatively primitive over a decade ago. “I don’t remember a whole lot of video and images in 2008 from athlete accounts or property accounts,” said Bavishi. “Over time, as we’ve gone from Games to Games, the way that athletes and brands and the Olympic family can express themselves on Twitter has changed as we’ve added new tools and services.”

Social platforms have provided brands a massively effective avenue for activation, but they’ve also been the conduit through which public awareness — and outrage — has been stoked, creating the very minefield Olympic stakeholders are now forced to navigate.

“The issues in China today are a lot more visible than they were 14 years ago,” said Fort, who recalled that plans for the 2008 Games’ global torch relay had to be adjusted due to protests, but that it ultimately concluded successfully. “Today, if you were to do that torch relay, it would be impossible. There would be widespread protests everywhere.”






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