Of all the brands that have chosen to sponsor Naomi Osaka, the world’s top-ranked female tennis player as of this week, Nissin is perhaps the most intriguing. There is no obvious link between instant ramen and tennis, but the maker of Cup Noodle has brought imagination to its sponsorship that others (including ANA, Nissan and Citizen) have not.
Until the ‘whitewashing’ controversy that preceded Osaka’s win of the Australian Open on Saturday, Nissin had had a good run. It bet on Osaka early, in November 2016, when few would have envisaged her becoming number one, at least in such a short space of time. A spokesperson for Nissin explains that Osaka’s “hungry spirit” led to the decision to back her.
“It’s like Nissin got the jackpot,” says Toru Fumihara, managing director of United Entertainment Group Japan, who surmises that it was a calculated bet based on a thorough assessment of her potential.
Since then, the brand has explored the ‘hungry to win’ theme with characteristic playfulness. Recent work includes a new year advert that swapped tennis racquets for the traditional Japanese game of hanetsuki; colourful packaging boldly bearing Osaka’s image; a parody in which a rival player gives up and decides to support her; and of course the ill-fated cartoon featuring a Caucasian-like Osaka, which Nissin pulled following widespread criticism. The furore left Nissin wrong-footed after the Australian Open, and while Osaka’s victory shifted people’s focus, the brand has done nothing to capitalise on it.
Observers think Nissin has managed its sponsorship relatively well, but that it could still do a lot more. Fumihara sees “great value” for the brand and is particularly impressed by last year’s packaging. He thinks the spirit behind the sponsorship is more important than a clear connection to the product.
Still, “so far, the focus we’ve seen from Nissin is above-the-line, association marketing and on-pack,” says Holly Millward, regional director at CSM Sport & Entertainment. She thinks there is an opportunity for Nissin to use the relationship to tell its own story in a more interesting way. It could focus on shared values such as challenging the status quo; it could be about eating wisely; or it could be about Japanese heritage and a shared journey. “We’d love to see more of that,” Millward says. “Ultimately, ‘why does the audience care about this?’ is the question they must ask themselves.”
Millward notes that “fun and humour” have an important role to play in any activation by Osaka’s sponsors. She “has all the raw materials and her stock will only continue to rise”.
She adds that “on a more fundamental level, it would be great to see Japanese brands such as Nissin [which is also a Tokyo 2020 partner] play a part in the story of the growth of sport in Japan in this unique moment in time ahead of the Olympic Games, to be part of that legacy”. She suggests there might be opportunities to link to the Ando Foundation, which began in 1983 as the Nissin Sports Foundation, dedicated to promoting sports as a key part of child development.
It’s probably already too late to take advantage of Osaka’s weekend victory, but Millward says moments like these are golden opportunities. “Brands must act quickly to ride the wave of engagement and create impact,” she says. “They must have sensors out to what fans care about, then act with an appropriate tone of voice, one that feels natural and not forced.” She cites Nike’s response to Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour Championship win as “a masterstroke”.
While Nissin may have missed this opportunity, the ‘whitewashing’ incident has not been the disaster it could have been. Nissin’s spokesperson insists the rendering was not a deliberate effort to change Osaka’s appearance, and in an article published in the magazine Aera, photographer Tetsuro Miyazaki suggests that Japanese artists lack awareness of how to present darker skin tones. He says it’s a skill they "need to learn".
To be sure, Nissin has had a lucky escape. The incident “matters because diversity matters” and Osaka is a particularly strong ambassador in that sense, Millward says. But she points out that Osaka avoided becoming caught up in the debate but ultimately defended her sponsor. “Nissin haven’t proactively put out the fire, but there’s a significant runway for redemption over the coming months and lead-in to Tokyo 2020,” she says.
What lessons can Nissin take from the incident? The spokesperson says the company will examine its communications “much more carefully” in future before releasing them to avoid any risk of misunderstanding.
Sponsors of athletes need to plan for all scenarios, including cases where they could get things wrong themselves, says Fumihara. “This is something they could have possibly avoided. All positive history can be washed away by a negative incident so easily.”
Ryoko Tasaki contributed to this article.