Mailman Insights: Observations from Beijing 2022
This article was originally featured in SportBusiness.
Despite mixed reviews, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics delivered some important lessons and milestones for the sports industry. We witnessed further strides in the digitalisation of sport, as well as significant progress towards sustainability and demonstrating that large-scale sporting events can in fact be “green”. Sponsorship was a challenge, but Chinese brands, in particular, showed increasing levels of sports marketing sophistication. Mailman has identified five significant observations from the Games that we believe provide valuable takeaways for the sports industry
1) A FULLY DIGITALISED OLYMPICS
To paraphrase IOC president Thomas Bach, Beijing 2022 was unprecedented in the level of digitalisation it employed and set new standards for usage of digital technology at a major sports events. Underling this, Bach delivered his praise for the organisers virtually, via a cloud platform provided by Alibaba. In another memorable digitalised moment, we saw a ceremonial handing of the Olympic torch to a hologram of Zhang Yong, Alibaba Group Chairman and CEO.
Beijing 2022 may well be remembered in posterity as the first truly digitalised Olympics. There was the visual technology employed at the outstanding opening and closing ceremonies, extensive usage of 5G mobile data networks, cloud computing, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, 3D motion tracking, the digital yuan [e-CNY], real time data simulation, 8K resolution broadcasting, and more.
In a hint of the future, and for the emergence of the metaverse within sport and media, Alibaba’s virtual spokesperson and influencer Dong Dong was an interesting addition to the interactive reporting, content and merchandise offering during the Games. Beijing 2022 set a new benchmark for the integration and display of digital technologies in elite sports.
2) PROGRESS TOWARDS A SUSTAINABLE, “GREEN” OLYMPICS
Upcoming editions of the Olympic Games are required to be carbon neutral, and from 2030 onwards the games have to go a step further and be “climate positive”, meaning the carbon savings they create should exceed their carbon output. Tokyo 2020 already went beyond carbon neutrality and Paris 2024 has also committed itself to being climate positive.
Beijing 2022 played an important part in the movement towards sustainable large-scale sports events. It contributed new pages to the playbook with its use of renewable energy and electric vehicles, and collaboration with sponsors to push green initiatives. For example, there was on-site recycling with Coca-Cola, packaging made from recycled materials with Yili, and hydrogen fuel cell buses from Toyota.
There were valid concerns around the environmental impact of the artificial snow used at the Games, as well as issues with the planting and replanting of trees in the competition areas, which overlapped with nature reserves. The organisers have stressed that no harmful chemicals were used in the artificial snow and the machines were powered by renewable energy. They also said that 90 percent of trees survived replanting. While the efficacy of these measures may be uneven, it is clear that progress towards true sustainability for large-scale events was made at Beijing 2022.
3) GLOBAL SPONSORS PLAY IT SAFE
The Olympics boast one of the most comprehensive lineups of global sponsors who are industry leaders in their respective fields. For Beijing 2022, they played it safe, largely focussing on experiential campaigns, sticking to an established playbook. For instance, Samsung created Olympics branded experiences in Beijing CBD, enabling fans who are unable to attend the games to interact and access content. Panasonic integrated their products into the Olympics Village and the venues, whereas P&G rolled out brand zones for athletes to enjoy laundry and hair treatment services using their products.
In light of the negative pressure from Western media on global brands associated with the Olympics, it’s a testament to the strength of the Games that all sponsors persevered with activation plans for Beijing. No matter the scale of their activations, having a presence and pursuing consumer engagement without any major backlash can be ticked off as a successful Olympics for global brands in the most testing of political environments.
4) LOCAL SPONSORS DOMINATE
In the absence of major campaigns by global Olympic partners, some local Chinese sponsors did very well at Beijing 2022. The big state-owned enterprises (SOEs) did not venture outside their comfort zones, mostly relying on basic brand exposure techniques, putting their logos in prominent areas. But brands like dairy products giant Yili and sportswear firm Anta showed creativity and investment.
Yili’s presence was well planned. Campaigns started with early milestone moments such as the 500 and 100 days to go marks. Premium, branded content was created with their stables of sponsored athletes and entertainment stars. Notably, Yili achieved wide reach with its title sponsorship of a winter sports-inspired popular variety show on television, and created more than 70 winter sports academies that allowed the public to learn and experience winter sports.
Anta made significant investment at Beijing 2022, sponsoring 12 of China’s 15 participating teams and a large number of individual athletes, including gold medallists Eileen Gu, Han Chong and Sui Wenjing.
What really stood out about Anta’s work was its reactive marketing. During the opening ceremony, Thomas Bach wore an Anta jacket, which was used by the brand in a viral campaign that made it a top searched and viewed topic on social media.
When Eileen Gu won her first gold medal, she changed into an outfit that she had designed with Anta. This spawned a range of products that were very successful with consumers.
Anta demonstrated an effective suite of marketing abilities, from its initial selection of athletes to sponsor, to long-term marketing planning, to the creation of hot topics on social media and finally to merchandise and sales conversion.
5) ALL-IN ON EILEEN GU?
Two trends stood out with regard to athlete sponsorships. We saw brands take the approach of signing up several athletes across different categories to best maximise the chances of backing a winning athlete. On the other hand, some brands went all-in on just one or two athletes.
Brands like PICC and Yili took the first approach, backing several athletes each. Dairy products firm Mengniu chose to only sponsor Eileen Gu. Keep in mind that they started with Gu back in 2019, when it was far from certain that she would be successful at Beijing 2022.
There are pros and cons to both approaches. In assessing them, we see three key considerations for brands:
Budget balance - Does the brand have enough money to sponsor a group of athletes or just go all-in on one? Brands must factor in the costs of activating the endorsements as well as signing the athlete in the first place.
Management bandwidth - Bringing on an endorsed athlete requires a brand to spend time to design, manage and execute the marketing plan, as well as spend time to manage the athlete. Does the brand have enough bandwidth and resources to do this for a group of athletes?
Sports sponsorship expertise - as noted earlier, some brands got in early with Eileen Gu when it was not certain that she would deliver gold in 2022. It takes sports industry expertise and possibly advice from outside experts, for a brand to identify an athlete at that early stage and also to make decision like whether to focus on one asset or multiple assets. The question here is whether a brand has the in-house knowledge to make the cal