Will it be gold for big brands at the Winter Olympics?

Controversies swirling around the Chinese leadership mean many brands are taking a muted approach to their Games sponsorship.

By William Furney, PR & content strategist, Reachology

PR and marketing opportunities probably don’t get much bigger than at the Olympics, when much of the world is focused on the events and all the corporate branding surrounding them.

But the Winter Games that kick off in covid-addled Beijing on February 4 are proving a far different branding story — it’s even been called a “headache” for giant corporations as they attempt to snare exposure while not being caught up in controversies surrounding the Chinese government. At the heart of the dilemma is firms’ desire to not upset Chinese rulers while at the same time avoiding a backfiring scenario where customers desert their brands over perceived support for a regime that has been accused of human rights abuses.

“This is a very, very unusual year,” Forrester Research analyst Dipanjan Chatterjee was quoted by CNN Business as saying. “Typically at this time of the year, you know, all the brands are all agog with excitement because the Olympics is right around the corner … Instead, what you’ve found is that they’ve retreated into their shells.”

A PR race to nowhere?

Big sponsorship money – running into the billions of dollars – is at stake, for host China, the International Olympic Committee and corporations’ sales and profits. But with several countries boycotting the Games, by not sending diplomatic representatives, including the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK, (their athletes will still compete) companies are potentially advertising themselves in a political minefield. These are the main sponsors of the Winter Games:

Olympic sponsors

President Xi Jinping’s government is accused of human rights abuses against the minority Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang, in the north of the country, as well as its hardline stance in the former British colony of Hong Kong. As a result, some Western nations have imposed sanctions on Beijing, which denies the charges. 

An Olympic sponsorship gamble

So are giant brands risking a backlash by supporting the Winter Games, where, because of covid, only selected spectators are allowed? Are they taking a gamble on Olympic commercial glory at a time when many see China as an unwilling player on the global stage and not intent on upholding the rights of minorities? Is it a case of there’s no such thing as bad press, only in this instance, publicity, exposure, more customers and higher sales?

And where are the big sportswear brands, like Nike and Adidas, on the Winter Olympics starting line? Nowhere to be seen. That’s because they’ve already been burned by criticism of what’s happening in Xinjiang and its alleged “re-education camps” — vocal protests that ended up harming their Chinese sales, after people in China boycotted their products.

Perhaps these Games would be better off, from a business and sponsorship perspective, being promoted online rather than in Chinese arenas. A good digital PR agency can, for instance, devise ways of linking firms and their brands to the events in internet-based media rather than everything and everyone being right there on the ground – a win all around, especially as much of the consumer world is online anyway.

Because damage to a brand’s reputation can have lasting effects, and take a long time to recover from as customers stay away and buy from rivals instead.

Who knows what will happen at these Games, but as with any, there will always be winners and losers. Whether the big brands will take home gold or risk being relegated to brand wasteland remains up for grabs.

Looking to protect your brand image and boost its presence online? Give yourself a sporting chance by talking to the digital PR leaders at Reachology. Book a free initial consultation now.

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