The Games Prevail for Active Firms

The Beijing Olympics have the potential to be among the most controversial in recent memory — but activewear companies are nonetheless diving in as sponsors.

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“I’m not sure the protesters are the primary sneaker customers,” he said. “But I really don’t believe the Olympics itself drives business. People don’t see pole vaulting and decide to be a pole vaulter. But the brands do a lot more marketing during the event and introduce a lot more product — that combination of fresh new product and increased ad dollars drives sales, though it’s very difficult to quantify the impact.”

Catherine Sadler, president of the New York marketing firm Catherine Sadler Group, agrees the potential upside outweighs the chances of a downside.

“Corporations want to play nice with the Chinese government, which controls their access to 1.3 billion new consumers with an appetite for commercial goods, and they want to raise their profile in China,” Sadler said. “Their investment in this Olympics has more to do with lifetime value and less with immediate sales, but they are also walking a tightrope because they need to be wary that consumers may equate sponsorship with an endorsement of Chinese policies. But consumers are extremely forgiving, and once in the throes of watching the Olympics, which transcend politics and are a part of the human spirit, which is what Nike and Adidas are about, I don’t know it will really harm them.”

Sadler recommended these companies find a way to “be both pro-Olympics and pro-change in China in a way that’s nonpolitical,” like Volkswagen planting thousands of trees in Mongolia.

Marc Gobé, president of Emotional Branding, a New York-based think tank, recommended that companies start a dialogue with their consumers online to ask them what they think of the issues in China and the Games in order to diffuse negative sentiments.

“If you are there with your billboards and commercials, consumers will see you as giving full support to China, and you might be a target for some negative sentiments,” Gobé said. “If you don’t have an active engagement of dialogue for the consumers, you may create customer resentment.”

As the official sportswear partner of the Games, Adidas’ ties to the Beijing Olympics are highly visible. The German brand is sponsoring 16 national Olympic committees, including China; 214 Olympic Federation sports, and more than 3,000 individual athletes — supplying more than 500,000 pieces of apparel and footwear. Plus the activewear giant is investing its biggest marketing spend in China ever in the Games. Its campaign, “Together in 2008, Impossible Is Nothing,” is “designed to bring the Chinese people together and inspire them to rally around the Olympic Games,” according to a spokeswoman for Adidas.
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