To Use Sports Celebrities, or Not?

That's the Question Facing Olympic Sponsors

By Published on .

Most Popular
BEIJING--Chinese can't turn on the TV these days without running into the country's most famous sports stars like basketball player Yao Ming, center for the Houston Rockets, or hurdler Liu Xiang, who has set world records in track-and-field events.

Associating brands with athletes has long been a popular shortcut to tap into commercial opportunities connected with the Olympic Games, a tactic that clearly has many fans at Chinese companies, according to a recent China internet survey by Nielsen Co. The online survey was conducted in late May 2008 with 12,549 Chinese respondents.

Three athletes dominated 8 of the top 10 spots for most-recalled Olympic celebrities in ads. The leader of the pack is Liu Xiang, who works with Coca-Cola (cited by 62% of respondents), Chinese dairy giant Yili (29%) and Nike (28%). Yao Ming, meanwhile, was mentioned in connection with both China Unicom and Coca-Cola (48% each). Guo Jing Jing, a Chinese female diver sponsored by Coke, trailed in third place at 36%.

Other celebrities, like pop stars and actors, are also widely recalled. The biggest celebrity endorser is Ge You, with 80% of consumers recalling his appearance in China Mobile ads, ahead of all Chinese athletes as well as fellow actor Jackie Chan, who's association with Olympic sponsor Visa International ranked in seventh place.

TV spots featuring Ge You's unique sense of humor and a heavy print campaign led to 8 in 10 consumers remembering Ge You and China Mobile. "[That] goes to show that choice of celebrity, creativity and the impact of a cross-media ad campaign can often speak volumes when it's up against advertisers with very deep pockets," said Richard Basil-Jones, Nielsen Media Research's managing director, Asia/Pacific in Sydney.

When considering overall ad dollars invested in celebrity endorsements in China so far this year, ads for Olympic sponsors or their competitors don't necessarily top the list. One case unrelated to the Olympics is Bawang, which is using Jackie Chan to plug its herbal hair care products. During the first five months of this year, it spent an impressive 851 million RMB ($123.5 million), possibly hoping to ride on the back of Mr. Chan's relationship with Olympic sponsors, Mr. Basil-Jones said.

Mr. Chan appears in ads for two sponsors, Visa International and, with his son, Jaycee Chan, for Coca-Cola's Original Leaf (Yuanye) tea drink.

In terms of spending, Visa was the number one Olympic sponsor, with an investment of 198 million RMB ($28.7 million) during the same period. Despite the number of products hawked on TV by Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong actor only ranked seventh in Nielsen's celebrity endorsement recognition ranking.

"Consumers clearly weren't confused about associating Bawang hair products with Chan and the Olympics, but they also didn't make a strong connection for Visa and Original Leaf tea either," said Mr. Basil-Jones. On the other hand, according to the Nielsen survey, "a significant number of consumers wrongly associated Jackie Chan with brand Coke, and almost two in ten consumers incorrectly associated Yao Ming with Nike, Adidas and Pepsi. Liu Xiang was incorrectly associated with Pepsi and MengNiu, one of China's largest dairy companies, by 15% and 13% of consumers, respectively.

In addition to human celebrities, ads for several Olympic sponsors have used a well-known fictional personality--Fuwa, the official mascot of this summer's games in Beijing. PC-maker Lenovo has used Fuwa to the greatest extent, with just over 40 million RMB ($5.8 million) on ads featuring Fuwa, ahead of 35 million RMB ($5.1 million) for China Netcom Group Corp. and 20 million RMB ($2.9 million) for Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group, China's largest dairy.

While these amounts are small compared to the budgets spent on advertising with other celebrities, the use of Fuwa makes a statement about the sponsors' support for Olympic values and reinforces the brands' association with the games.

"As Fuwa is a carefully protected copyright, this is one thing that sponsors can do without danger of being copied by competitors or ambush brands," said Mr. Basil-Jones.

Signing up a celebrity without proper thought to campaign tactics and creatives is no guarantee to achieving consumer recognition for their brands. As the China Mobile case shows, a carefully conducted campaign can reap dividends, and achieve higher levels of cut-through than is otherwise achieveable.

But choosing a celebrity to endorse your brand is only half the battle. Deciding how to then leverage the endorsement with a stand-out campaign is equally, if not even more, important.

This is the fourth in an ongoing series of special reports by Nielsen Co. about marketing aspects of the 2008 Olympic Games. The third report, "One Olympics, but three beer sponsors," was published June 4, 2008. The second report, "Do suppliers benefit from sponsoring the Olympics?" was published May 21 2008.
In this article: