Tokyo Olympics 2020—Is It A Marketing Disaster?

July 27, 2021

The run-up to the Tokyo Olympics 2020 has been rocky. Organizing it has been a behemoth challenge for the hosts as COVID-19 continues to spread. Many participants have already tested positive for the virus after reaching the Olympic village. The Ugandan boxing team, American tennis player Coco Gauff, the South Africa soccer team, and the Czech volleyball team have been recent victims. The total count of COVID-positive athletes has reached 106, and public opposition is mounting.

From the perspective of the Olympic brand and what it stands for, the developing events are not at all favorable. And it shows in the way brands are interacting with the event. Staple juggernauts in the sponsorship table, Toyota and Coca-Cola, have already dialed back advertising efforts. A Toyota ad that has already been shot with athletes from different countries will not even be aired once. Reasons cited were the growing unpopularity of the games among consumers. Fujitsu, Nippon Telegraph, Panasonic, and Asahi groups are other brands that have pulled the plug on advertisements.

History Of Olympic Marketing

Businesses and the Olympic brand have a long history that is almost a century old. The 1920 Olympic games in Antwerp were the first to host corporate advertisements. In 1928, Coca-Cola started its long-running partnership with the Games. And by 1964, the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, more than 200 brands had partnered with the Games for marketing and advertising.

The dividends were huge. By the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the Olympics had established itself as one of the biggest marketing opportunities, and big brands started bidding for the coveted title of “official partners.” For the brands, it was a huge boost in reach and the opportunity to become household names. A classic example is McDonald’s campaign to give free food every time the U.S. won a medal. The move provided McDonald’s with the opportunity to make a point over its competitor Burger King.

The 2000s saw the rise of the internet and with it a sky-rocketing of digital coverage. The Sochi Winter Olympics saw 60,000 hours of the Games being consumed on 230 digital channels. And with half the world’s population watching the Games, brands associated with the event achieved unimaginable reach and brand recognition.

The Tricky Situation In Tokyo Olympics 2020

Olympics – an image that conjures up this global event are the opening and closing ceremonies…the flaming torch….the mega advertisements and of course, the medal tallies. But one other sight common to these international sports is the throngs of people sitting in the bleachers – crowds simmering with excitement with each win or loss. One of the biggest landmarks of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 is the fact there are no in-person audiences witnessing records being broken and tearing up for the losses. The Covid-19 virus has forced sportsmen to perform for a digital audience today! Although advertisers lost out on an in-person audience, marketers were able to cater to the digital consumer through other marketing strategies.

Public discontent towards the Tokyo games is a big threat to the Olympic brand. A survey showed that 83% of the Japanese public are opposed to the Summer Olympics being held at this juncture. The sentiment is also mirrored in various parts of the world. For a seasoned marketer, this is a huge red flag. 

Public opinion and word of mouth have been the kings of the marketing world since the era of bartering began. Brand awareness and reach are possible through advertisements. But if the consumer does not want to associate themselves with a brand, it is a full-stop. For example, Dove got tremendous kickbacks and contempt for its decision to package bottles into different shapes of female bodies. It was intended to promote body positivity but the message was lost to the public. The result? An endless sea of discontent and a taint, that Dove had to work hard to regain the trust of its customers. 

For the Tokyo Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has had to fight an uphill battle against public opinion. And with brands pulling out of the Games, they decided to focus on a key aspect of marketing—emotional connection and engagement.

Marketing The Tokyo Olympics

Tokyo didn’t welcome the world indoors and kept the stadiums empty, but the spirit of the Olympics is still kept alive. The IOC’s first move to build a connection with its audience was to continue referring to the Tokyo Games as the 2020 Olympics. It would help retain the centuries-long tradition of four-yearly Olympic games and keep the buzz going till the opening ceremony in 2021.

The next strategy the IOC employed was to go direct to the consumer. They did this using various multi-channel strategies and content. A landing page was created that provided visitors a chance to dive into Olympic history, profiles of athletes, press releases, and the spirit behind the Olympic games.

A video titled Giant Workout with Olympic Athletes from all over the World! | #OlympicDay 2020, was also released which brought the viewers together to stay active and exercise. The video came at a time when the need for good health was more important than ever and built a very positive image for the Olympic brand. As a result, the hashtag #StayActive and #OlympicDay2020 has been trending since their first usage in the video.

Fans were also given the opportunity to track the progress of the Olympic Torch Relay through various live streaming platforms. The IOC has created a dedicated page for the rally, where visitors are able to track the route and swipe through various behind the scene moments. To boost the morale of the torchbearers, visitors were asked to post with the hashtag #Hopelightsourway. 

The IOC also leveraged Instagram to keep the buzz alive by posting content regularly on their handle. Player profiles, facts about the event, and sponsor details have done great to keep people engaged with the event.

The Payoff Is Positive

Tokyo 2020 may not have been the advertising gala that other Olympics were, but there are big wins for the Olympic brand. The audience with whom the IOC has been able to reach has developed a strong engagement and affinity to the Olympics. Earlier, the Games used to pop up once in four years, and the buzz would start only closer to the event. The engagement is likely to continue with the brand in its various channels.

The shift from product display to creating an emotional connection has also resulted in brands focussing on sending a meaningful message. Procter & Gamble’s ‘Lead with Love’, Coca-Cola India’s ‘Thumbs Up Tokyo 2020’, and Nike’s ‘Best Day Ever’ are great examples of brands focussing on the need to bond together and celebrate the hard work of the athletes.

For the IOC, the Olympic brand may have taken a hit in a few areas, but their embracing of modern marketing techniques has kept the ship afloat. The brands participating and the IOC together have made great use of their digital channels and kept the spirit of “Faster, Higher, Stronger-Together” alive.