David Blecken
Oct 7, 2016

How Japanese brands can get the most out of Tokyo 2020

For any sponsor hoping to win at the next Summer Games, preparation starts now.

How Japanese brands can get the most out of Tokyo 2020

When ANA secured sponsorship of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, the airline had little in mind beyond announcing the deal to the media via a press release. Two years on, at the recommendation of the PR agency it appointed to draft that release, Hill + Knowlton, its sponsorship has developed into a major branding and activation exercise under the banner of ANA Inspiration.

It’s in a PR agency’s interests to ‘upsell’ to a client. But when it comes to sports sponsorship, it’s also in a client’s interests to invest in activities that give that sponsorship life beyond the event itself. ANA’s example is positive, but John Morgan, Hill + Knowlton’s Tokyo-based Asia-Pacific president and CEO, is not alone in expressing surprise at how few Japanese brands seem familiar with the concept of activation.

Activity by sponsors at the Rio Olympics looked subdued. Nick Varley, founder and CEO of Seven46, who played a key role in helping Tokyo win its Olympic bid and spent a month in Rio around the games, said Japanese brands failed to stand out. Nissan’s activities appeared very traditional and did little to build on the fact that it was the official car supplier, he says. Panasonic, a top sponsor that supplies much of the Olympics’ technological infrastructure, was also “conspicuous by its absence” from a consumer perspective, offering up little beyond a hastily put-together Olympic website.

“Current activity is not so good,” admits Kyohei Noguchi, head of marketing at Lixil, a Japanese housing equipment and building materials company, which is a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner.

It’s fair to say that many sponsors simply left it too late to form a meaningful activation plan. The poor planning of the event itself is likely to have been part of the problem. It’s also important to note that Toyota and Bridgestone, which recently signed on as top sponsors alongside Panasonic, do not yet have full global activation rights.

But with brands spending a minimum of around $150 million to buy their way into Tokyo 2020, the pressure should already be on to ensure that investment pays off. Matters are intensified by a relaxation of Rule 40, which governs the involvement of non-sponsors with individual athletes. Any non-sponsor looking to derive value from the Games would also do well to prepare their strategy well in advance.

The consensus is that brands should start planning now, with a view to launching activation activities up to 18 months before the event. “The biggest mistake sponsors make is to start late,” says Gabriela Mandrea, head of marketing activation at Edelman Japan, who previously worked in sponsorship at Coca-Cola. “Four years seems a long time, but it’s actually right around the corner.”

Where brands go wrong

The problem with betting everything on the 17-day duration of the games is that in the end, brands are the last thing on spectators’ minds. Having attended Rio, Noguchi believes “there is no space to think about sponsors, companies, products or business”. For him, “the most important time is before and after—the legacy that we leave as a sponsor”.

Another common mistake is to play it too safe. Make no mistake: the stage for sponsors at Tokyo 2020 will be crowded, with up to 80 brands expected to be involved in some official capacity—20 more than in Rio.

In this environment, Mandrea sees use of Olympic branding and Olympic-related messaging as “scratching the surface”. At Rio, countless brands concentrated on congratulatory announcements around sporting performance. Communications of this nature are likely to blend into one and become part of the noise that fans are trying to avoid.

As dramatic as sports can be, athletic imagery alone does little to help define a brand. Any linkage to sports or athletes has to be imaginative. “Over the next four years, there’ll be no shortage of ads that show pictures of athletes,” says John Woodward, chief strategy officer of McCann Worldgroup Japan.  “Those things feel right when you see them in the boardroom, but when you see them on TV, they don’t stand out.” 

New opportunities

If Rio was the most high-tech Olympics yet, Tokyo 2020 will be more so. While brands will be forced out of their TV comfort zone, they will also have far more ways to reach people via social and streaming channels and, quite likely, technology such as virtual reality.

Momentum is clearly shifting from traditional TV to streaming, with 2.71 billion minutes of coverage streamed from Rio, according to figures from NBCU. The Olympic Channel, a new OTT internet TV service that Bridgestone and Toyota are sponsoring, will be another way to extend the life of the games beyond the actual event.  With 5G technology set to roll out soon in a number of markets including Japan, Morgan also expects viewership on multiple devices to be “second nature”. Snapchat, for example, drew around 50 million viewers to its Live Stories around the Rio games.

“We can expect the Games to be less prescribed by host broadcasters and more curated according to viewers’ online behaviour,” says Sam Pearson, director of business development for Japan at CSM Sport & Entertainment. Lixil’s Noguchi agrees that digital activation should be the focus, not TV.

In terms of activities, the introduction of sports such as surfing and skateboarding stands to broaden the appeal of the Games and presents a new opportunity for brands to engage a younger audience. Noguchi also sees the Paralympics as a key property that is likely to have a higher profile than usual given that it was first introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Varley expects the Paralympics to carry almost equal weight and offer the chance for brands to tell stories that are often “more human and more inspiring”.

Morgan sees the Paralympics as “a great opportunity” for a country “that has room to improve in embracing challenged members of society”. At the same time, he cautions that building association with social issues and sustainability can be powerful, but only if the brand is already engaged in supporting the cause or making a difference. Aspirational messaging with nothing to back it up “leaves an empty feeling”, he points out.

The Tokyo Games are also likely to be more democratic. The easing of Rule 40 means both sponsors and non-sponsors will have more scope to use athletes as ambassadors. In Rio, Under Armour, while not an official sponsor, used its relationship with Michael Phelps to great effect ahead of the Games and then reaped the rewards of his performance and popularity. “It was very difficult before, but now there’s an opportunity,” Varley says. “[The IOC] have created by the back door a second category of brand association.”

Of course, Varley still advises strongly against simply “waiting for someone to do really well, then buying him up and sticking his face on as many products as possible”.

How to win

Observers still believe that sponsors stand to make a stronger impact than unofficial brands, but only if they think as strategically as the challengers. That is also likely to mean spending up to three times the sponsorship fee on activation, Woodward says. The key to standing out is identifying a niche and owning it.

In Lixil’s case, that means striving to create a “universal society”, which is why the Paralympics are so important. Japanese brands are advised to learn from P&G’s ongoing ‘Thank you, Mom’ campaign, which uses the sporting platform expertly as a way to connect with people on an emotional level and achieve distinction. Coca-Cola also set a good example at Rio in terms of experience with branded ‘houses’ detailing its history with the Olympics.

“You need a theme that expresses who you are and what you uniquely bring, which has to be more than the products,” Woodward says. That is true regardless of whether the target audience is domestic or international. While strategies must be adapted to fit the audience, it’s important to remember that what happens in Japan will not stay in Japan. Gold partners may only have the right to activate at home, but by creating a positive experience for visitors, they have the chance to spread their message much further by word-of-mouth, Varley says. Panasonic typically takes a B2B focus, for example, but it should not forget the potential these activities have to influence consumers visiting Japan ahead of and during the games.

For Woodward, Prime Minister Abe’s unexpected appearance as Mario at the closing ceremony sets a good example for Japanese brands looking to communicate with a foreign audience.

“It felt that people were getting to know Japan more under the surface, and that’s what people want from Japan and Japanese companies. That would be a great thing for Japanese sponsors to let people do—to see behind the curtain.”

This article appeared first on Campaign Japan: 2020年東京五輪・パラリンピックと日本ブランド 

Campaign Japan

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