Uncomfortable signals are brewing from the sponsors of the Tokyo Olympics taking place next month. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the major sponsors had privately called for the Games to be postponed for several months (at least to September or October this year) so that more spectators can attend the mega event to help the marketing campaigns achieve some returns on investment.
The proposal was made to the organisers by some key sponsors early this month, amid growing frustration and unease among some 47 Japanese companies that had collectively paid more than US$3 billion as sponsorship fee to back the Games in Tokyo.
The Games, undoubtedly the most heavily sponsored sporting event in history, have been facing negative feedback in opinion polls that show as much as 80 percent of Japan’s citizens saying they want the Olympics cancelled or postponed.
The Games organizers, with now barely 4 weeks to go to the opening ceremony, however, seem determined to go ahead with the Olympics despite the on and off COVID emergencies in many parts of Japan. With an abysmally low level of vaccination, there are fears of the most likely scenario of empty spectator stands during the games. For those who have spent millions of dollars in anticipation of an exciting and magical event, such a scenario is not funny. For Japan, US$21 billion are at stake, as well as Japan’s global reputation and years of tireless preparation.
There’s been several dilemmas facing sports sponsorship over the past decade. Brands have become wary of sports stars, clubs, or leagues who’ve found themselves in controversy — whether it is failed drug tests, drunk -driving, polarised points of view, betting and salary cap scandals, or other on-field or off-field issues. Never have they seen the dilemma of depreciating interest and passion in a game that has always attracted the largest followership in sporting history.
Many brands are secretly contemplating seeking renegotiations while others are still sticking on like Nike to Tiger Woods.
Recall that many brands associated with Tiger Woods had decided to end their partnerships with him following his scandal-plagued years of 2009 and 2010. Yet Nike stuck with him. And still does. “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it,” Nike founder Phil Knight said.
Despite the advantages of sports sponsorship, Tokyo 2020 Olympic anxiety leaves Japanese sponsors counting huge cost. Toyota last month acknowledged public “concern” and said it was worried that “some people’s frustration is directed towards athletes”.
With under 30 days to the start of the event, their advertising campaigns should have been running in full gear by now. Instead, most sponsors have been quiet ever since the Games were postponed last year. Akio Toyoda, chief executive of worldwide Olympics sponsor Toyota, expressed frustration earlier in the month with the slow progress in controlling Covid-19 when asked about the pandemic.
“This is a serious emergency that requires crisis management,” Toyoda said, speaking as head of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. “The reality is that we are still in a period of anxiety and dissatisfaction.” Toyota, and others in the sponsor line-up, don’t know whether to advertise or not.
The overall sentiment is negative. Yet, if they don’t advertise now, when will they?
Expert analysts have been roped in to figure out if the sponsors should start using references to their Olympic association and embrace some of the Olympic imagery in their advertising before the current aperture too is wasted.
Some analysts are counselling that the references or visual deployment be kept to the minimum because of the dark mood that continues to prevail in the host country. Research agencies Kantar, Macromill, and Intage too have been engaged to gauge the public mood towards Olympic linked brand advertising.
The dilemma is very real – companies had hoped to raise their brand value by sponsoring a major once-in-four-years-event global sporting event. But in reality, it has become impossible to actively promote the fact that they are sponsoring the Tokyo Olympics.
Interestingly, the dilemma is so real that most Japanese sponsors have created two campaigns and will take a last-minute call on which creative to run depending on how matters pan out over the next four weeks. Everyone is waiting with bated breath: the fond hope is that the opposition to the Games may begin to ebb. If it doesn’t, the fear is that flaunting an Olympics association may actually hurt the brand’s image.
Some brands are trying nevertheless. Asics, the Olympics kit partner of the Japan team has started putting up displays at their stores, as well as in other prominent locations. The communication is predominantly BTL with actual jerseys on display, but most ATL is currently on amber mode.
Asics did run a commercial but relegated the Olympics rings to a brief fag-end appearance in the TVC. Meiji, the milk and chocolates company, a big Japanese sponsor, too has put out a fresh campaign but the creatives have no Olympic referencing.
The positive news for marketers in the sports sponsorship space is that they have as much information at their fingertips as their consumers do, to weigh up these dilemmas and make appropriate decisions. The trick going forward is to be aware that social sentiment can swing quickly and to have thought through the risks and scenarios.
Notwithstanding the sour test from Tokyo Olympics, there is no doubt the right sponsorships are still an effective marketing channel for certain brands. Marketers just need to be ready for the ever-increasing scrutiny of today’s media and consumers, who have higher and higher expectations of people, brands, companies, and sporting organisations doing the right thing.