Bank of China bets on Olympics to achieve an image overhaul

Will sponsoring China's badminton team persuade consumers bank has adopted a Western-style sales attitude?

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BEIJING--Olympic sponsor Bank of China is attempting an image overhaul by promoting its connection to one of China's best-loved sports--badminton.

The Beijing-based bank compares the sport, or more specifically, the China National Badminton Team’s efforts to succeed doing it, to its own ambitions. Like many organizations that are majority-owned by the Chinese government, Bank of China is trying to overcome a stodgy image and reputation for poor customer service.

The ads, running in TV, print and outdoor nationwide from May 15 until the summer games are over, show the national badminton team training for the upcoming games, ending with the tagline, “Never Stop the Pursuit of Excellence.” Bank of China, the official banking partner of the 2008 Olympic Games, has sponsored China’s national badminton team since July 2007.

Badminton is “a very positive sport in China” and one in which the country is a strong contender to take home gold medals, said Victor Yeong, Beijing-based general manager, China of Havas Sports, which created the campaign with another Havas-owned agency, Euro RSCG. They were appointed last March after a tough pitch against Japan’s Dentsu, which has handled BOC’s advertising in China for several years. Media buying was handled in-house or through local brokers.

Knowing Chinese badminton players have dominated major international tournaments including World Cup and Olympic games for years, “the sport is a good choice,” he added. “We found common denominators, such as the long history for badminton in China as well as Bank of China, and the team’s hard work to become the best.”

The campaign, aimed at white-collar consumers and small business owners, also highlights the bank’s heritage through traditional Chinese idioms that reflect the work ethic and striving for excellence, said John Zhang, Euro RSCG’s group creative director in Beijing. Traditional elements in the ads, such as the Chinese red that is also the color of Bank of China’s logo, and Chinese idioms are used “in a modern way, giving the campaign more depth and meaning that goes beyond just showcasing athletes."

Although BOC is China’s oldest bank, one of China’s top domestic brands and for decades, was the only financial institution in China that could offer international banking services, it is no longer the largest of China's big four state-owned commercial banks. That honor belongs to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China's largest lender. (The other two biggest banks are the Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank.)

Bank of China is not greatly loved at home either. Like all local banks, it is a victim of China’s antiquated financial system, in which personal checks are almost unheard of, credit ratings are hard to establish and foreign exchange is strictly regulated. The bank is trying to become a friendlier institution that treats customers like valued clients and not an unwelcome nuisance, a challenge for any company operating in China.

“The hard part is catching up with the world standards," Mr. Yeong explained. "In soft areas like human resources and training, they are up to 20 years behind. Lots of systems need to be improved, including its service mentality. They are changing because otherwise, they will lose some customers. They understand this.”

Sponsoring the Olympics is big part its improvement strategy. BOC won the bidding to become the official banking partner of the 2008 Olympics in July 2004. That means tickets for the events are sold at Bank of China branches across the country and it will provide banking for athletes, trainers, journalists and other visitors at ATMs in the Olympic Village and sporting venues. It also financed the Olympic torch relay. The bank may even issue Olympic-themed bank notes in the weeks leading up to the games.

The bank’s first-quarter profit surged 85% as loan growth and lower taxes outweighed big losses on investments linked to U.S. subprime mortgages. Despite a booming bottom line, Bank of China is nervous about competition coming inside and outside the country.

China’s mighty economic engine is beginning to slow down, a possible global recession is brewing, and BOC, like all Chinese banks, faces increasingly stiff competition from overseas banks, which are entering the country as fast as China's agreement with the World Trade Organization allows. Following China’s entry into the WTO, this is no longer the case.

Since the start of last year, foreign banks have been allowed to offer RMB services to Chinese individuals. By the end of June 2007, 16 foreign banks were incorporated, mostly in eastern China. They have been playing a minor role in China’s banking system. On a national scale, foreign banks can’t compete with the country's big national banks that have branches scattered across the country.

But the experience and investment advice offered by institutions like HSBC Holdings and Citigroup is pulling in business from the richest Chinese, a lucrative market. Their strong marketing tactics are also attracting white-collar Chinese in first and second tier cities.

Local banks even face pressure from the internet, where a new type of currency has taken hold in China. QQ coins were created as a payment system in 2002 by Tencent Holdings to allow its registered users, over 200 million, to shop in its virtual world. When other marketers such as Coca-Cola began accepting QQ coins as a safe and convenient method of handling small online purchases, the currency’s value began competing with real-world money.

Bank of China knows it has to learn how to take on virtual rivals as well as brick-and-mortar foreign competition, but that doesn't make the process any easier, said Mr. Yeong. BOC “is a very conservative bank. It’s like a big elephant, when it moves, it moves slowly. It takes time to make changes."
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