Countdown to the 2008 Olympics hits one-year mark

Noodle sponsor Uni-President promotes sports in rural China

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BEIJING--With the start of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing just one year away, Uni-President Enterprises has joined the bandwagon of sponsors trumpeting their connection to the next summer games.

The Olympics “are the biggest marketing opportunity for all advertisers” in China, said Shanghai-based Canon Wu, chief creative director of Can Create, which developed the campaign. Can Create was established by Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson division in China earlier this year. Uni-President’s instant noodle division “aims to further increase its brand awareness, image and more importantly their brand preference through the sponsor campaign.”

Produced in a myriad of flavors like stewed sparerib and sour-hot beef, instant noodles are a food staple for most families in one of the world’s most populous countries. With prices ranging from one U.S. cent to 13 cents per cup or packet, they are particularly popular among legions of blue-collar workers and budget-minded housewives, even though prices have risen up to 40% in the past two months to cover rising palm oil and flour costs.

To draw attention to its instant noodle business amid a sea of other Olympic marketing campaigns, Taiwan’s largest packaged food company has created a string of striking images that encourage school children to participate in sports more often as well as identify kids who have significant sports talent, in preparation for future Olympic games. The program launched in May with a charity event in Beijing supporting sports facilities in 1,000 rural schools, but advertising in TV, print, outdoor and online media and point-of-sales materials debuted this summer using the tagline “A better mian.” (In Mandarin, mian means “face” and “noodle.”)

The ads depict young Chinese engaged in sports like weight lifting, running, table tennis, badminton and gymnastics. One-half of each image shows students in clean, modern athletic environments with vibrant colors. The other half of the image shows the same scene but the background setting is of poor rural life, in black-and-white. The campaign, which will run through 2008, is connected to Project Hope, a program founded in Anhui province in 1989 to improve thousands of impoverished primary schools in China’s countryside with funding and equipment.

Participating in the Olympics is “out of the question” for kids at these schools, said Ms. Wu. “In working with the China Youth Development Foundation, Uni-President decided to help bring sports into these schools and help future Olympic gold medal hopefuls have the equipment to develop their skills, or at least to instill an athletic spirit in the students.”

Uni-President’s selection as the official noodle sponsor of the 2008 games last fall by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) was a remarkable and valuable coup for the company. Chinese consume more than half of the world’s instant noodles, spending nearly $4 billion last year on nearly 50 billion units.

BOCOG’s decision was also noteworthy because it chose the Taiwanese firm over major mainland noodle marketers like Hebei-based Hualong Food Co., Jin Mailang Beverage Co. in Beijing and Zhenzhou Baixiang Group Co. in Henan province. Uni-President became the first Taiwanese sponsor of the 2008 games, despite longstanding political tension between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade Chinese province.

The company, which registered more than $3.12 billion in global sales last year, about $1.1 billion of which came from domestic sales, also trumped rival Taiwanese noodle marketers like Ting Hsin International Group, whose Master Kong brand is the clear market leader in mainland China, as well as Nissin and Nong Shim.

But Uni-President is a sizeable and well-known player in the mainland, said Wang Wei, BOCOG’s executive VP, during the signing ceremony in September 2006. “We believe that, with its extensive social impact and high-quality products, [it] will be able to meet the expectations and demands of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.”

Today, Uni-President remains the only major Taiwanese-funded Olympic sponsor of the next summer games, but it faces the same challenges as other sponsors of one of the most commercialized Olympic Games to date. In addition to 12 global sponsors chosen by the International Olympic Committee, BOCOG has signed up dozens of sponsors, partners and suppliers in a complicated five-tier system.

Most top-tier sponsors--and a lot of companies with no formal connection to the games--have already launched campaigns in China relating to the Olympics or sports in general. The marketing hype and number of players putting out messages has created confusion among consumers, according to Greg Paull, partner at R3, a Beijing-based consultancy that tracks Olympic branding.
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