‘Greatest Show On The Planet’

Crowds descending upon the Great Wall at Badaling are greeted these days with a bold assertion about China’s future: Perched on a hillside is a huge sign featuring the Beijing 2008 Olympics logo and the games’ declaration of purpose: “One World, One Dream.”

It’s a year and a half before Beijing’s Summer Games, and there is already a palpable excitement about the country’s coming-out party. The Chinese are planning an event that will transcend mere athletic competition. Given the government’s finely tuned propaganda skills, its first Olympics will be produced as proof of China’s arrival as a world power. Nothing is being left to chance: Beijing is a skyline of cranes, with 24/7 construction permits at more than 10,000 sites, with much of those building efforts ahead of schedule. Beijing is promising the most technologically advanced games and the most green, with 30,000 acres of freshly planted trees, new air-quality monitors and forest shelters to control sandstorms. The ruling technocrats are even promising good weather: The Beijing Weather Modification Office, which regularly uses cloud-seeding planes, rockets and artillery to create rain, is studying ways to ensure sunny, clear skies.

“For China, the Olympics will be more than just about sport. This will be the biggest event, the greatest show on the planet ever,” says Paul Pi, Adidas vp, marketing, Greater China, echoing a widely held view. “Ninety percent of the Chinese public say they wanted to host this Olympics. That’s huge, higher than anywhere else in the world.”

It’s anticipated that about 4.5 billion viewers will watch the games on TV, while 800,000 foreigners are expected to visit China’s capital city and another 1 million of China’s citizens will journey there.

For international and domestic marketers alike, there’s a sense this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many marketers, like GE and Visa, kicked off their first Olympic efforts in 2004.

The ’08 games mark GE’s first ad efforts in its b-to-b push to land contracts in the fast-growing infrastructure. GE has already won more than $150 million in contracts since the campaign broke. “It’s GE’s showcase to customers in China,” says Judy Hu, GE global executive director, advertising and branding. “We bring solutions, whether in energy, water, security, ultrasound. We’re actually selling to the Olympics [organizing committee].”

Adidas is the games’ only brand licensee partner, which allows it to sell co-branded products. (Others can only give away goods with the games’ logo.) “It’s a huge platform for us, probably the largest ever,” adds Pi. “We’re using the universality of sport and leveraging the desire for the Western world.”

Last year, Coca-Cola formed a dedicated Olympics team, bringing 45 people from its various marketing communications partners in-house. The disciplines involved include account servicing, creative, media planning, communications and online strategy.

Other companies have paid out a total of $1 billion to be a part of the Olympic partner program, including Johnson & Johnson, Atos Origin, General Electric, Kodak, Lenovo, Manulife, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic and Visa. Among Chinese companies who have signed up are Bank of China, China Netcom, Sinopec, PetroChina, China Mobile, Air China, Haier, Sohu, Yili, Tsingtao Beer, Yanjing Beer, BHP Billiton and HYX China Group Ltd. Most of them are first-time sponsors. In traditional single-brand categories like beer, there are already three official sponsors: Tsingtao, Yanjing and Budweiser.

Wearing the Beijing Games as a national badge of pride, normally fickle Chinese consumers say they’ll support marketers who buy into the Olympic vision: Some 53 percent of Chinese surveyed said they’d be more likely to buy a product from a co-sponsor of the Olympics, according to research firm consultants R3 and TNS.

In a business culture that plays fast and loose with intellectual property, that mindset could be too tempting to non-sponsors. They should think again. “One of the very unique things about these Olympics is the whole area of ambush marketing. You don’t want to get on the bad side of the Chinese government,” advises Scott Kronick, president, Ogilvy Public Relations, China. “One of the first teams hired was a team of lawyers to protect the Olympic marks, to protect against ambush marketing.”