China earthquake tragedy recasts Olympics sponsors

Outpouring of aid shifts spotlight to marketers' humanitarian efforts

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HONG KONG--The catastrophic earthquake that rocked China's Sichuan province has changed the entire tenor of the coming Olympics and the torch relay.

As humanitarian aid from the public and sponsors of the games poured in and China grappled with a disaster that, as of this week, had left more than 65,000 dead, Olympic organizers subtly changed the tagline for their heretofore controversial torch relay to "Spread the sacred flame, spread caring love" from "Ignite the passion, spread the dream."

That move coincided with a larger shift to tone down what were supposed to be exuberant celebrations as the controversial torch relay hits Chinese soil.

“It's very interesting how the main message of the event has morphed from an off-putting victory lap filled with braggadocio to a warm-but-resolute plea for national compassion and unity,” said Tom Doctoroff, CEO of JWT, China, who is also an Olympic torchbearer.

The shift has also given the top Olympic sponsors an opportunity to recast their efforts in China. Marketers such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Samsung have had their Olympic efforts to date tarred by protesters as kowtowing to a regime that already has a poor human-rights record and now is tolerant of the genocide in Sudan.

News cycle turnover

The opportunity to help out in a crucial humanitarian task during a time of true crisis changes that conversation, according to executives at several sponsors, by knocking the earlier stories out of the news and providing a platform for high-profile generosity.

Alice Li, Lenovo's VP for Olympic marketing in Beijing, said she hoped the company's aid in Sichuan would affirm its commitment to China and to corporate citizenship in general. “We have to take a long-term view,” said Ms. Li, and hope the company's support in Sichuan and of the torch relay “will convey to consumers that we want to be good corporate citizens.”

Corporations are donating cash to organizations like the Red Cross, but many are finding creative ways to help out with products and services. Lenovo Group led a blood drive at its Beijing headquarters and is promising to donate computers to rebuilt schools.

Indeed, many of the top Olympic sponsors have been among the most generous and aggressive in responding to the Sichuan crisis. General Electric contributed water purifiers and portable ventilators and beverage giants Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola Co. distributed millions of bottles of water.

McDonald's served up to 17,000 meals daily to earthquake victims, relief workers, blood donors, hospital workers and police and fire officials. McDonald’s also donated funds specifically earmarked for rebuilding schools in several cities near the epicenter of the quake.

Aid from foreign firms tops $280 million

But the help was by no means limited to Olympic sponsors, as virtually every major marketer with significant ties to China chipped in. Globally, foreign companies contributed $281 million, China’s commerce minister, Chen Deming, said in a statement May 22.

Ford Motor Co. gave ambulances and emergency vehicles, Motorola provided emergency telecommunications equipment and FedEx chartered flights to deliver medical supplies. Pharmaceutical companies like Bayer and Pfizer supplied medicine. China’s largest dairy, Yili Group, transported all of its stock in Sichuan province to the earthquake site.

Nokia has donated 5,000 phones with prepaid SIM cards in partnership with Sichuan Mobile to help search and rescue teams. It sent vans into the affected regions to supply power and telecom services to survivors and rescue teams, as well as tents, food, water and medical supplies. Nokia also plans to help rebuild schools and train teachers, and extended its “Touch an orphan’s life” program to selected disaster areas.

Hong Kong-based Network CN, which operates an out-of-home advertising network, has donated time on its network for charity messages and live news broadcasts related to the earthquake and recovery efforts in six cities until at least the end of May, and possibly into June.

United Airlines offered 500 frequent-flier miles to any customer who donated $50 to the American Red Cross' relief efforts for the earthquake victims in China's Sichuan province. The response was overwhelming, and United hit its pre-announced cap of five million miles in a single day.

Deep local ties

The total amount of donated goods and services, in itself, appeared to demonstrate the importance of the emerging Chinese market, as the outpouring of aid far exceeded contributions sent to alleviate the suffering following the even more deadly cyclone in Myanmar. Companies are eager to raise their profile in China, especially during an Olympic year. Many also fear getting slammed by local consumers if they do not help in the relief effort.

“It's a combination of things,” said David Wolf, a public-relations consultant based in Beijing. “Yes, this is China. It's a big market, and companies, if you want to look at it cynically, want to be seen as making a contribution. But many of the people running Chinese subsidiaries of major corporations are Chinese or have been here a long time and now have deep ties. They are genuinely shocked by the images coming out of Sichuan and want to do everything they can.”

Scott Kronick, president, China of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in Beijing, attributed the response gap relative to Myanmar to proximity. “A lot of times companies talk about contributing to the communities in which they do business. This has become a moment of truth about what kind of company are you and what are you willing to do.”

Contributing: Ad Age reporters Jeremy Mullman and Claude Brodesser-Akner
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