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.

As humanitarian aid from the public and sponsors of the games poured in and China grappled with a disaster that, as of late last week, had left more than 55,000 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."

McDonald's earthquake relief effort
Lenovo employees donate bloog

Pitching in: (top) A McDonald's relief effort; a Lenovo employee donates blood at the company's headquarters in Beijing.

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."

Lenovo 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. Coca-Cola donated more than $3 million and gave more than 5.7 million bottles of water. McDonald's served 17,000 meals daily to earthquake victims, relief workers, blood donors, hospital workers and police and fire officials.

But the help was by no means limited to Olympic sponsors, as virtually every major U.S. marketer with significant ties to China chipped in. Ford Motor Co. gave ambulances and emergency vehicles, Motorola provided emergency telecommunications equipment, General Electric contributed water purifiers and portable ventilators, and FedEx chartered flights to deliver medical supplies, among numerous other marketer efforts.

Importance of aid
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.

"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 of Ogilvy PR 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."

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Contributing: Claude Brodesser-Akner

United trades miles for money

Lots of marketers chip in during humanitarian crises, but United Airlines may be the only one rewarding its customers for doing so.

Last week the airline 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 preannounced cap of 5 million miles in a single day.

Aside from being the right thing to do, the mileage giveaway was shrewd marketing on several fronts, said airline-industry analyst Henry H. Harteveldt of Forrester Research.

First, it provided a gentle reminder to customers of United's status as a leading carrier to China. It also put the airline industry in a decent light during a week it was taking collective flak over American Airlines' decision to impose a $15 baggage-check charge on customers that one screaming New York Post headline characterized as "Skyway Robbery."

Companies usually have to spend a bit to put themselves in that sort of positive glow, but United -- only a few years removed from bankruptcy and now dealing with staggering gas prices -- has shifted its philanthropy toward in-kind donations in recent years.

The mileage giveaway, a tactic it first trotted out to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims, elevates that approach. "United is not in a position to write a check," said Mr. Harteveldt. "But it can harness the goodwill of its customers."
-Jeremy Mullman
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