The classic modern Olympic case study and one that gets more than its fair share of praise in ‘Working the Olympics’, is Samsung. The story of a faceless OEM turned global brand superstar on the back of a quality product portfolio, a sponsorship portfolio bordering on lavish, and a single-minded attitude to brand marketing. Yet so much has changed, even since we began writing ‘Working the Olympics’, that instinctively that story feels like it belongs to a bygone era; an era when it was Western markets and Western consumers that were the prime audience and emerging brands were desperate for the riches that could be unlocked with a mass consumer profile and a hefty marketing spend. Now the world is very different.
The causes of the shift in consumer power from Western to Eastern (or more accurately non-Western, the geographic trend is a much Southern as it is Eastern, indeed to avoid the twin pitfalls of confusion and condescension Ernst & Young now use the arguably more accurate term ‘Rapid Growth Markets’) are well documented and it’s easy to overstate the decline of what are still the world’s major economic powerhouses but the favoured topic of conversation for the past few years has now switched to how Western brands can replicate their success outside of their traditional heartlands.
If ‘Working the Olympics’ has a hero then undoubtedly it’s Coca-Cola, and their actions around the Beijing 2008 Olympics exemplify the need for Western brands to ‘think local’ when dealing with markets of the size and strength of China. The cultural differences that exist even within China mean that functionally China needs to be seen as at least 4 different markets, and even then it involved discounting a number of the Western provinces. The size and importance of the Olympic Games provide the focus for companies to make the commitment to building a brand locally and based on local cultural values, the primary lesson learnt is that strong consumer brands cannot be transplanted into emerging markets, they have to be cultivated. It’s a process we saw around Beijing and it will repeated, no doubt with just as many successes and failures, over the next 4 year World Cup / Olympic cycle in Brazil.
The problem any Western brand faces is that a sponsorship solution that works in China typically will only work in China. There aren’t comparable properties to a Champions League or a Tour de France that can stake a genuine claim to multi-country relevance. As much as European markets (and amongst more enlightened commentators the US) are described as fragmented and diverse consumers have much more in common with each other than the average resident of Gansu province does with someone living in Shanghai, let alone Hong Kong or Singapore. In sponsorship at least there’s really no such thing as a single APAC strategy, let alone the fabled ‘emerging markets’ strategy.
The growing importance of ‘Rapid Growth Markets’ (a list which starts with the BRICs but extends much further) as a source of future profits is beginning to call into question the entire notion of having a highly centralised sponsorship strategy. There is no single property, and no single platform, that can provide cultural relevance across even the four BRICs let alone the broader RGMs. Formula 1 and tennis rightsholders will lay claim to reach but they stumble for mass relevance, and even the major quadrennial sporting events, the FIFA World Cup and Olympics, struggle to generate any real excitement outside of events time in China or India respectively. The realisation that must sooner or later dawn is that any strategy build on a single platform will not be fit for purpose.
Brands need to be cultivated organically, they need to be built locally to reflect what you believe in not imposed from above, and sponsorship strategies need to follow suit.