At the 2012 Olympics, Chinese swimmer Sun Yang had a bad start to the 1,500 meter freestyle race, plunging into the water before the signal. But officials cleared him to try again; he looked into the stands and saw his mother place her finger to her lips, a signal for him to calm down and focus. He won gold and set a world record. Later, on his Weibo microblog, he thanked his parents for their support.
Coca-Cola and McCann Worldgroup were inspired by the relationship between Mr. Sun and his parents, and stories from other athletes, in their China campaign for this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It's the local interpretation of Coke's global "That's Gold" marketing platform for the Olympics; the idea is that "gold" isn't about winning for winning's sake, it's about sharing a dream or goal with family, friends, coaches and teachers.
The campaign is an example of how marketers in China try to tap into the national zeitgeist. China experienced years of fast-paced economic growth and development; growth has slowed, and the government has pushed to rebalance the economy to something more sustainable. That feeling has trickled down to ordinary people too, with a sense that after years of striving to get ahead, it's time to take stock of what's important.
"People are trying to lead a more balanced life -- it's not about winning at any cost," said Richard Cotton, head of creative excellence for Coca-Cola China.
More of the campaign will roll out this summer; this piece of it focuses on three stories around Chinese athletes. There's swimmer Mr. Sun, who "told us that his parents go to every swim meet, every race, every practice, everything he's done since he joined the Chinese swim team," said Cia Hatzi, McCann Worldgroup regional business director for Coca-Cola, who recounted the story about Mr. Sun spotting his mom in the stands in 2012. "She felt her son's nervousness and gave him the courage to focus."
There's volleyball player Zhu Ting and her relationship with coach Lang Ping, nicknamed the "Iron Hammer," and the Chinese 4X100 track and field team, whose members have trained together since childhood.
One of the commercials, airing on TV and digital, focuses on the athletes. A second one includes the athletes along with ordinary people and pianist Lang Lang, who composed the music for the spots. He has a special relationship with his 87-year-old teacher Yafen Zhu, who started teaching him when he was 3.
Online reaction has been warm; a few commenters were surprised to see Olympic athletes drinking Coke in the spots. (They're all Coke fans, Mr. Cotton says, adding, "We're not saying, 'drink a Coke and compete,' we deliberately put the consumption off the field of play, at a natural moment when you would want to have that Coke" -- celebrating with family and friends.)
Coca-Cola partnered with internet giant Tencent and its social network Qzone, which has 588 million monthly active users. It has a feature similar to Facebook's "On This Day," which offers prompts about memories people have shared in the past. Coke is sponsoring the memories, turning them into Gold Moments. Mr. Cotton says that's "a much more personal way of bringing the campaign to life."
This story also appears on Adage.com.