While they never publicly said it, it’s likely that many brands sponsoring the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games shared the view of Japanese deputy prime minister Taro Aso, famously quoted as saying the games were “cursed”.
Postponed for a year due to Covid, with the seemingly ever-present threat of cancellation dangling overhead like Damocles’ sword, brand sponsors—many of them Japanese—were never fully able to carry out their initial plans or even their revised marketing contingencies. Some, like key global sponsor Toyota, ended up pulling all their television ads for the duration of the games as public opposition to the games due to health risks took hold. Public cynicism over monetary motives during a time of national challenges didn’t exactly sit well either.
“Toyota definitely positioned itself wisely in response to mixed public sentiment,” says Kota Murakami, associate vice president of client services at Essence Japan. “Advertising on television for the Games might have appeared too commercialistic in this case.” Yet by remaining a sponsor and inserting itself into the Games strategically, like providing self-driving transportation in the Olympic and Paralympic Villages, Toyota was able to live up to its promise of showcasing homegrown mobility innovation, Murakami says.
Despite an unfortunate accident in late August between Toyota’s self-driving transportation and a Paralympian, the Japanese public nonetheless responded favourably to both Toyota’s presence in the Olympic and Paralympic Villages and its absence in Olympic-themed TV ads, Murakami says. In fact, he argues the accident allowed Toyota to showcase its effective use of its owned media platform, Toyota Times, where the company reacted swiftly through a CEO apology and commitments to specific improvements to prevent future accidents.
In the end, the shift away from traditional Olympic brand sponsor advertising might have provided a valuable lesson. As Yukiko Ochiai, president and CEO of Grey Japan explains, “Tokyo 2020 will make companies re-think their strategy with the Olympics, and it's probably a turning point to head to a leaner and simpler event that focuses more on its original motto of building a better world through excellence, friendship and respect. Their marketing efforts will also reflect a further shift towards authenticity and helping in a real way, whether by directly sponsoring a cause or by other means where brands are shown to be doing the 'the right thing' and doing it for everyone's betterment.”
Reiko Ogata, chief branding director at Dentsu, agrees. While not all Japanese may have favoured hosting the Olympic Games in the first place, Ogata says from the earliest planning stages the event came to be viewed as an opportunity to improve the country’s infrastructure and accessibility, especially in Tokyo itself.
“We have really upgraded ourselves to meet the needs of today's digitalized society," she says. "The ICT infrastructure has been upgraded. The city is more universally designed with accessibility guaranteed for more [segments of society], education programs used the Olympics as an opportunity to learn about different cultures, diversity and about disabled persons giving everyone a new perspective. We may have lost a chance to show all of this during the Olympic Games, but these improvements are here to stay with us.”
In this vein, she says, Toyota took the right approach to its Olympic involvement by contributing to these improvements on accessibility. The best example of this, Ogata points out, are the universal designed ‘Japan taxis’ Toyota developed specifically for this period, which are easier for the elderly or disabled to ride in and have been subsidized by the government ahead of the Games—despite being knocked by some as an overly expensive program. As hybrids, the vehicles are also better for the environment and now form more than a third of Tokyo's taxi fleet.
“All of the Olympic sponsors here are already prestigious and well-respected brands," Ogata says. "They didn’t need to use the Olympics to raise awareness but to show their corporate responsibility to society." The opportunity around the Games, she adds, “was not about having a logo on an event but more about changing the community and serving as corporate citizens.”