Matthew Keegan
Jul 23, 2019

A year to Tokyo 2020: which brands will win the Games?

12 months out from the Tokyo Olympics, we take a look at how the Games are affecting Japan’s advertising market — and ask which brands stand to make the most from the sports extravaganza.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games mascot Miraitowa at a 'One Year To Go' ceremony in Tokyo Stadiuam in Chofu, on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games mascot Miraitowa at a 'One Year To Go' ceremony in Tokyo Stadiuam in Chofu, on the outskirts of Tokyo.

It’s the world’s biggest stage for brands, and with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games only a year away, it’s no surprise that many companies are already going for gold. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recently reported record domestic sponsorship revenues of more than US$3 billion — three times more than any previous summer Games.

But which brands — official or nonofficial sponsors, Japanese or non-Japanese — are likely to be the biggest winners at next year's Olympics?

"Japanese sponsors stand to make the most from the Tokyo Games," says Patricia Ruiz, account supervisor at Saatchi & Saatchi Tokyo. "This is a transformative time for the city and they are an integral part of that transformation, especially as they take this opportunity to showcase the ways their innovations can impact Tokyo and the world.”

Meanwhile, Doug Schiff, CCO of Ogilvy Japan, says that while the official sponsors, such as Toyota, Bridgestone and Panasonic, have the advantage, being the 'official sponsor' can bring with it conservatism. "Often the unofficial brands do the work that steals the show, as Li-Ning did at the Beijing Olympics." (The former Olympic gold medallist Li Ning, founder of an eponymous sporting goods company, ran around the inside perimeter of the "Bird's Nest" stadium at the 2008 Games before lighting the Olympic cauldron. This moment stole the show but was regarded as a marketing ambush since sponsors like Nike and Adidas had shelled out millions for sponsorship, while Li-Ning had not.)

Ruiz points out that historically, despite the IOC’s regulations, ambush marketing has often occurred around the Games. But in Tokyo, considering Japan's characteristic respect for rules, Ruiz says that non-official Japanese sponsors are unlikely to damage the relationship with the Organising Committee or the city of Tokyo.

Li Ning in the Bird's Nest at the Beijing Olympics

Toru Fumihara, managing director of the sports, entertainment and content marketing firm United Entertainment Group (UEG) Japan, who opened their first Asian office in Tokyo last year in preparation for the 2020 Games, believes it is crucial that brands have in-depth knowledge of rights activations, or work with the right partner or agency that has such expertise. "Securing enough budget for activating the rights outside the already expensive rights fee is also important," says Fumihara. "If not, brands could end up being like someone who has a supercar but [doesn't know] how to drive it or maintain it."

Early signs of campaign life

One year before the event, there have not been too many brand activations or campaigns in Japan yet but observers have some predictions on what angles and approaches these will take. "In Japan we will definitely see increasing campaigns that touch on national pride," says Yoshi Matsuura, group head of planning at McCann, MRM, Craft in Japan. "I expect there will be emotional ads that revisit the journey of Japanese people since their first Olympics in 1964, as well as campaigns that recognise the recovery after the massive earthquake and long economic stagnation, and hope for the rise of a new Japan."

Tyre and rubber company Bridgestone, in fact, has just announced that it is marking one year until the Olympics by installing 'Bridgestone seismic isolation bearings' in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre and Ariake Arena, designed to decrease damage in the event of another earthquake. 

It's expected that worldwide sponsors like Coca-Cola will get the most out of their marketing rights when they support events like the Olympic Torch Relay (Coke is one of only four sponsors for the Torch Relay alongside Toyota, Nippon Life and NTT) and through the Coca Cola athlete team, comprised of athletes like Kosuke Kitajima and Luna Imai (swimming) and Nishimura Airi (skateboarding) who they are utilising for their campaigns.

Visa has also started to deploy its own athlete team, which consists of sporting stars in new disciplines, such as surfer Kanoa Igarashi and BMX Freestyler Rim Nakamura. Both have recently featured in TV commercials for the brand.

"For Tokyo 2020 Games, it’s very interesting how brands will utilise the new discipline sports and their athletes like surfing, skateboard, BMX and free climbing," says Fumihara. "These new sports will get attention during the Olympics and Japanese athletes are predicted to perform well in such sports. Lots of athletes from these new disciplines will be on the podium and new stars will be born here. This is an effective way to attract a younger crowd (GenZ and young millennials) to the Olympics and it's why IOC added those sports to the Olympic disciplines."

Alibaba, a worldwide sponsor and strategic partner of the Games, entered into a 12-year deal with the IOC in January 2018, reported to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Alibaba views the partnership with the Olympics as a key way to reach and engage more young people moving forward by leveraging the company's data technology and cloud computing technology.

Last year, the e-commerce giant launched its first Olympic advertising campaign,‘To the Greatness of Small’ (below). "It's really a campaign containing our voice of the Olympics," says Chris Tung, Alibaba’s chief marketing officer. "It conveys our mission to support the underdog in business. Our consumers and our partners like the campaign because it's in line with the spirit of the Olympic Games that everybody has a fair chance to compete and win. So it’s true to the Olympics Games and it’s true to our own mission. That’s why this idea is pretty well received after we launched it last year."

For Tokyo 2020, Alibaba plans to carry on with ‘To the Greatness of Small’. Tung says they are planning to promote a significant call to action (as yet undisclosed) that will be amplified through social media in a more engaging and interactive way, instead of placing lots of advertising or media buying. "I think it’s a very rich idea that we have," says Tung. "We are developing a lot of online activation ideas around the theme that will be kicked off early next year. We’re going to invite people, especially young people worldwide, to join our campaign and be part of it, have fun and really celebrate the spirit that’s common to everybody together.”

The connected Games

Attracting a younger crowd looks likely to be key for a lot of campaign strategies around the Games. With this goal in mind, the use of digital, social and interactive experiences by brands at the Tokyo Games is expected to be bigger than ever.

"We’re already seeing early activations from Panasonic and Samsung, both using VR to give people an athlete’s perspective," says Ruiz. "We are getting ready for a showcase of robots, future mobility products, and tech innovations like we’ve never seen before."

Early signs suggest that the Tokyo Olympic will be the most digitally connected global sports event ever. This is clear from the number of IoT related partners, such as Alibaba, Samsung and Panasonic, and all the connectivity and new technology they are using, such as 5G, 8K, AI, VR and Auto Pilot.

I believe those sponsors who put more focus on Paralympics can break through the clutter as Paralympics and Para athletes have lots of stories to tell.

"The important consideration here for brands is to not just use social or digital channels for the sake of using social or digital channels," says Ken Maki, business development director at Octagon Japan. "The differentiator between brands who will deploy those successfully will lie in their ability to add to or enhance the fan experience (not distract from it), start or contribute to a relevant and meaningful conversation or provide exclusive content, information, data or access that fans cannot get elsewhere."

Alongside the Olympic Games, the 2020 Paralympic Games look set to be a more crucial part of the marketing platform than ever before. "The stories that can be told through the Paralympic Games and the parallels that can be drawn represent an excellent marketing opportunity for brands, at a comparably lower price point than the Olympics or other properties," says Maki.

Others like Fumihara agree that the Paralympics are not to be undervalued or overlooked. "TV stations in Japan, especially NHK, are pushing Paralympic sports and Para athletes a lot in their programmes. Diversity is one of the biggest concepts in Tokyo 2020," says Fumihara. "I believe those sponsors who put more focus on Paralympics can break through the clutter as Paralympics and Para athletes have lots of stories to tell. They have as much power as the Olympics and Olympians and they can emotionally move people much more. I hope people and sponsors can see this during the Games."

But while the Olympics and Paralympics offer a global platform for brands like no other, the potential to waste money and not fully utilise the opportunity is also something brands need to be wary of.

"For brands, just putting Olympic or Paralympic logos at the end of their TVC is not enough and is not worth for what they are paying for the rights," says Fumihara. "Sponsors need to be smart, not to waste their money by buying the rights only because the Olympics is happening in the country/city where their HQ is located."
 

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