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Will Anyone Win the Marketing Game at Beijing 2022?

It may be difficult to realize that the arrival of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games is just around the turn of the new year. The opening ceremonies will take place on February 4, 2022, and the Games will conclude on February 24th. The Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games are the first games to be held less than a year after the preceding summer counterpart in nearly 30 years. Since 1994, the two events have been held two years apart but the 2020 Summer Games were delayed a year due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

After the pandemic complicated last year’s Summer Games, organizers, participants and sponsors are ready to put the impact of the pandemic behind them, but that is not going to happen. A “closed-loop management system” will be in place at Beijing 2022 which requires everyone at the Games to only move between specified venues using dedicated transport. All attendees at Beijing 2022, who are not fully vaccinated, will have to serve 21 days of quarantine after arriving in China. Those who have been vaccinated will be exempt from the quarantine provided that the vaccine has been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) indicated that international spectators, including the family and friends of athletes, will be prohibited from attending the Winter Games but that they would sell tickets to Chinese fans who meet certain conditions and comply with COVID-19 protocols. While international sporting events remain important marketing and sponsorship events for brands, this year’s Winter performances carry significant risk to multinational corporations who sponsor or market the Games. Intel Corp., Procter & Gamble Co., Coca-Cola Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have all announced plans to invest in sponsoring and conducting other marketing activities in Beijing. Ten of the twelve top tier sponsors at this year’s event earn more than $110 billion a year in revenue from the Chinese marketplace.

“People see sports as a good thing. So they want to connect their brands to the positive images of the Games,” says Weisheng Chiu, an associate professor of sports management at the Open University of Hong Kong. “Sponsoring the Olympics is almost always worth the money companies invest.” The Chinese Communist government is well known for turning on some of the world’s largest companies when they criticize official government leadership. Corporate executives who dare to criticize China’s dismal performance on human rights and restrictive social justice policies can expect to pay a high price for openly expressing corporate positions. On the other side of the fence is the United States Congress and social justice and human rights activists all across America who are speaking out negatively about corporate sponsors who support profit-making at the expense of important human rights issues in China.

To increase the level of risk, a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Congress has introduced the Beijing Winter Olympics Sponsor Accountability Act, a bill that would prohibit the U.S. government from signing contracts with any corporation that sponsors Beijing 2022. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) says, “This is the only way I think I can get [American Beijing 2022 sponsors] to respond. I hope it will be a real wake-up call for these companies.” The U.S. lawmakers condemn Beijing for alleged mistreatment of Tibetans, and the mostly Muslim Uyghur population in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well as for a national security crackdown in Hong Kong. John Zhang, director of the Penn Wharton China Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in stating the obvious, said, “The sponsors want to keep a low profile, at least when it comes to [discussing human rights] issues. The simplest path forward is to focus only on sports.”

For big corporations this year’s winter games may be a win or no-win decision. Whether it is better to take the high moral road or sit atop a fence of neutrality can be debated endlessly with no easy and clear resolution. It is important to note that in the U.S. many of the same corporations are using marketing clout to speak-out on social issues across America, but are willing to abandon the position in the face of a repressive Chinese country of 1.8 billion consumers. It is uncertain if the apparent hypocrisy will be a successful marketing strategy, but it does spawn one absolute: Neutrality never produces a hero for those residing on either side of a fence.

With just 100 days to go before the opening ceremonies, NBC is struggling to find a viable pathway to a successful 2022 Games experience.  A recent Morning Consult survey has found that just 100 days from the start of the event, “just 26 percent of U.S. adults were aware that the next Olympic Games are scheduled for winter 2022, while only 21 percent correctly identified Beijing as the host city.” While “forty-one percent of U.S. adults said they plan to watch “a lot” or “some” of the Beijing Games, 29 percent said they favored boycotting support for the Beijing Winter Olympics.”

It may be that the only winners of Winter Olympic gold in 2022 will be standing atop the pedestal on the field of sports competition. Brands hoping to win at playing the marketing game may have to settle for a draw.