A sporting chance

Olympic researcher Greg Paull

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BEIJING--With less than fifty days remaining until one of the biggest sporting events of our lifetime, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, this is a prudent time to reflect on which sponsors have leveraged the event well and which ones have missed out, and to identify the best ways to maximize sports sponsorship opportunities.

Working closely with our partners at CSM Media Research, we've been tracking global and national level Olympic sponsors on a number of criteria with 13,000 Chinese consumers since mid-2006. These interviews have been conducted face-to-face in ten cities, allowing us to accurately represent the population, as well as giving far more insight and open-ended responses into our study.

We have "eyeballed" these consumers as they have shared with us how well Coca-Cola Co., Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group (Yili), Lenovo Group, Adidas, Johnson & Johnson and other leading companies have driven connections. Linked to media spend data, we have been able to calculate the ROI now on these investments--a critical factor in determining the optimal spends, and in fact, if these investments are worthwhile to begin with.

While the group above have won, other government-linked companies such as China Mobile Communications Corp., China Netcom Group Corp., Air China and the China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. (Sinopec) have not managed yet to capitalize on their investment. Over the past two years, we've tried to identify what they have failed to do, and in turn, what the best companies have done very well.

1. Identify the business issue
Is the opportunity brand-enhancing, business-enhancing or just something the chairman has had his eye on? Successful sports exploitation can only come when the goals and measures are clearly defined. J&J, for example, has used its Olympic sponsorship to significantly enhance its brand values and create a stronger 'mother brand' umbrella--something that was clear as an issue from the start.

2. Consider the passion points
To optimize a sports sponsorship, you need passion--internally within the company, as well as externally with the consumers. Several sponsors of table tennis in China have found it hard going, despite the sports' No. 1 position in terms of popularity in our research. The reason? The home team is always just expected to win, so the passion and risk is not as strong. By comparison, the National Basketball Association has tapped into passion with its own U.S. players as well as exploiting the popularity and rising careers of Chinese basketball players like Yao Ming and Yi Jian Lian.

3. Understand the depth of exploitation
Most sports sponsors don't do enough due diligence on just how far they can go to access the assets of a property. Can you use the player's images in merchandising? Will you have complete rights in the digital domain? What are the limits on exclusivity? Often opportunities are missed, because they just aren't thoroughly considered at the initial stage. A number of Olympic sponsors, for example, have found that the experienced sports marketers have got considerably more value from their packages, because they have thought this through in advance.

4. Speak clearly to multiple audiences
An event like the Olympics offers unique opportunities inside as well as outside the company, to consumers of course, but also employees and customers. Lenovo have shared tickets to Olympic events directly with their (mostly Chinese) employees, giving them rare access to a once-in-a-lifetime event. As the games approach, every sponsor has put in place customer programs to invite key partners into the event. It's here where a lot of the value of the investment will be realized--Coke enhancing relationships with its bottlers, Adidas expanding retailer relationships, or UPS showing appreciation to key customers. These corporate hospitality activities can have long-term financial benefits, if they are well managed.

5. Sponsorship is nothing without measurement
It's crucial to set up metrics to assess the success of sports sponsorships, as is linking those back to business objectives. Research can often be as simple as exit interviews, or as elaborate as tracking to benchmark performance. In our Olympic research, the best marketers have taken swift action to address some issues in their campaign performance.

China's largest dairy company, Yili, was quick to develop direct messaging of its Olympic sponsorship, supported by strong brand campaigns featuring sports stars such as champion hurdler Liu Xiang, the NBA's Yi Jian Lian and top female diver Guo Jing Jing. Already, they are seeing improvement in awareness and brand health. Coke has also been able to use its sports marketing research to woo athletes and analysts alike.

With the increased fragmentation of media, and the growing passion and professionalism of sports in China, there's going to be significant investment by brands to gain more leverage and traction. Sports is not for the faint of heart though, but if you come to it with the same passion and commitment, you can more successfully go for gold.

Greg Paull is a Beijing-based principal and founder of R3 (www.rthree.com) an Asian-based consultancy helping marketers improve their efficiency and effectiveness.
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