The cola giant's TV campaign, themed "Live Olympic on the Coke Side of Life," highlights the games' host country, while a packaging promotion brings aspects of Chinese culture to 150 countries -- a gamble, some might say, as critics around the world disparage China's track record on human rights and environmental issues. But Coca-Cola is standing firm, saying it never considered adjusting or scaling back its program and is not concerned about negative consumer feedback.
"As we get closer to the games, the consumer excitement is much more positive than we would have thought," said Kevin Tressler, director-worldwide sports and entertainment marketing at the marketer.
Indeed, China seems to be grabbing fewer negative headlines. "The message tends to get more positive and some of the politics tend to fall away as the competition itself and the story lines that develop therein come to life," said Kevin Adler, president of Engage Marketing, a Chicago-based sports-marketing firm.
Still, some major sponsors are treading carefully. Visa is running spots in the U.S. that focus on the Olympics' ability to bring countries together and hardly mention China. In stark contrast, Coca-Cola is expected to announce plans today for two flashy spots that prominently feature China and will air around the globe.
East meets West
In "Unity," which will begin airing in the U.S. this week, basketball stars Yao Ming and LeBron James show off cultural icons from their respective countries. In Mr. Yao's case, that includes dragons and traditional fans, while Mr. James touts break dancing and cowboys. At the end of the "cultural face-off," both basketball stars look to trump each other by pulling out a Coke -- Mr. Yao's in Mandarin packaging and Mr. James' in English packaging.
"This is our own interesting way of East meeting West and bringing the world together," Mr. Tressler said. "[Mr. Yao and Mr. James] are so different, but the one thing they're united on is a Coke."
The second commercial, "Bird's Nest Stadium," will air Aug. 8, the date of the opening ceremony. In that spot, animated birds fly around the world -- actual footage from different countries was shot -- snagging straws from unsuspecting people, often from their Coke bottles. The birds build what is ultimately revealed as a look-alike version of the Beijing National Stadium, which has been dubbed the Bird's Nest.
Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., created "Unity," and Wieden & Kennedy, Amsterdam, Netherlands, created "Bird's Nest Stadium."
Some 25 countries have committed to air the spots either on TV or online, Mr. Tressler said, adding that more countries will pick up the spots as the games approach. In total, 60 countries will activate some form of integrated marketing.
The broadest aspect of the program is the rollout of commemorative packaging in 150 countries. That, more than anything else, indicates the company's support of this year's Olympic Games, Mr. Tressler said. The Chinese characters used to phonetically pronounce Coca-Cola translate to "delicious happiness" in Mandarin, and that will be explained on each package in the local language.
"Packaging is the best way to interact with consumers," Mr. Tressler said. "They might not watch TV or get on the net, but they're going to see Mandarin packaging, and that's a commitment."