China Mobile dials up Olympic fever with youth brand M-Zone

Internet and mobile lead campaign

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BEIJING--It’s getting harder for Olympic sponsors to come up with ad campaigns that stand out in China. Dozens of advertisers, local companies and multinationals, global and national level sponsors, have blitzed Chinese media with campaigns in recent months in hopes of connecting their brands to the games in a compelling fashion.

By basing its Olympic marketing effort on its own technology, China Mobile Communications Corp., or China Mobile, hopes it has found a way to cut through the clutter for its youth-oriented M-Zone service brand. The “Team Up to Cheer” campaign includes traditional media like TV and print, but is primarily a digital effort built around a music platform and running in mobile and online media like, and Tencent's bulletin board platform, QQ.

China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, “has to embrace the digital space to attract this target group. The true purpose of the above-the-line campaign is to drive consumers to the web to take part in this series of activities,” said Raymond Tao, exec VP of Ogilvy & Mather, Beijing, which handles advertising for M-Zone and GoTone, China Mobile’s flagship brand. GoTone is aimed at business customers and offers international calling and global roaming. China Mobile operates a third service, a basic prepaid option called Easyown, which accounts for over 70% of China Mobile's customers.

The music part of the site lets consumers watch videos with pro-Chinese Olympic-themed cheers created by M-Zone’s brand ambassadors, pop stars Jay Chou and Will Pam and an all-girl-band, S.H.E. They can also create videos mimicking the celebrities and upload them to an M-Zone minisite on, a popular online video site in China, at Consumers can vote for their favorite videos. Winners will win tickets to the Olympic Games this summer, mobile hand sets and other prizes. About 200 cheers and songs themed around the games can be downloaded to phones by M-Zone users.

China Mobile is also backing concerts featuring the singers, who will visit cities and university campuses, urging fans to sing “jia you,” an expression that means “add oil,” but is used in China when cheering for a sports team. The campaign started April 1 and will run until mid-September.

Big--and still growing

China Mobile has more customers--over 376 million--than any other mobile phone company in the world and is still growing fast, adding 68 million subscribers in 2007. In the last quarter of 2007, China Mobile’s revenue rose 21% and total minutes used soared by 45%.

China Mobile's only rival is China United Telecommunications Corp., or China Unicom. It had 121.7 million subscribers in January 2008, up from 120.6 million a month earlier.

As the Olympics approach, China Mobile is also leading the mainland’s homegrown 3G standard, TD-SCDMA. The infrastructure was deployed in eight provinces by the end of last year and should be in place by the times the games start Aug. 8. The arrival of 3G, eagerly anticipated by advertisers, will further strengthen China Mobile’s grip on the local media industry.

M-Zone customers fond of lucrative extras

The "Team Up to Cheer" campaign is aimed at M-Zone's 80 million subscribers, who are mostly aged 18 to 25. Many are university students in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and sophisticated tier two cities such as Chengdu. They are lucrative customers, using extra services like downloading music, ringtones, wallpapers and sending and receiving multimedia messages.

Young Chinese are “very enthusiastic” about the Olympics and want to cntribute, said Katherine Huang, business director, OgilvyOne, Beijing. "That’s why we went for the mobile and internet approach. They like being mobile, they like being flexible, they like their life having more freedoms.”

China Mobile is well-poised to reach the country’s hippest consumers, already big users of mobile phones and other digital media. Its technology base gives it an important edge compared to other sponsors, whose Olympic campaigns are all starting to look alike.

P.T. Black, a partner at Jigsaw, a Shanghai-based marketing consultancy that tracks youth trends, said he is “increasingly depressed about the state of Olympics advertising, [which is] so bland and the same. [Can’t marketers in China] uncover a new insight?”

China Mobile plays it safe

M-Zone is a truly national brand, and an important one, he said. “M-Zone is one of the most powerful youth marketers in China today, and they have consistently been on the forefront of bringing interesting and relevant material to the nation’s youth.”

From supporting hip-hop dance competitions to billboards plastering third and fourth tier cities, M-Zone is deeply involved in young peoples' lives.

“The three insights guiding the latest ad campaign--that Chinese kids want to be a part of the Olympics, that they love their country, and that they are at a distance as spectators--are undeniably valid and painfully pedestrian,” said Mr. Black. “That same mix of insights is fuelling everything from beer ads to sports shoes. It’s not a surprising perspective, nor is it ownable.”

It is, however, safe and accurate, and resonates on a national scale, he added.

Mobile delivery is unique medium

Many sponsors “use similar themes,” admitted Ogilvy’s Mr. Tao. The difference between China Mobile and other Olympic campaigns “is not the cheering for Olympic theme,” an idea that has already been tapped by others such as McDonald’s. “It’s the way we deliver this theme to our target audience that is very different. Other brands use advertising to make claims or do some offline activities. For this M-Zone campaign, the difference is that this is the first time we truly integrated everything together through digital media.”

Mr. Tao said China Mobile plans to extend the theme to its overall Olympic marketing and corporate branding. It’s unclear, however, whether an approach based on downloading music and following in the footsteps of pop stars to cheer on China would resonate with, for example, the wealthy factory bosses or senior white-collar executives using GoTone. Or even with teens in rural areas using China Mobile’s cheaper Easyown service.

"Skinny-trousered hipsters in Shenzhen view these Olympics differently than do countryside teens in Sichuan or the punkrockers in Beijing,” said Jigsaw’s Mr. Black. He said there are huge opportunities for clever brands to take risks and offer a genuinely new perspective on the Olympics.

“It’d be great to see a generous campaign that acknowledges China’s modernity by showing how intimidating the vast skylines could be to a competitor from a smaller country, or humanizing that moment with a welcoming Beijing smile--and a can of soda, a calling card [or] whatever product you want.”

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