Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beijing Brand Insanity

At the Olympic Games here, you drink Coca-Cola beverages, eat McDonald's food, ride in Volkswagen sedans and watch events on giant Panasonic video screens.

You also take ------- elevators, are protected by ------- fire alarms, cool down thanks to ------- air conditioners, and wash your hands under ------- faucets.

To ensure that only the companies that pay millions of dollars to be official Olympic sponsors enjoy the benefits of exposure in Olympic venues, organizers have covered the trademarks of nonsponsors with thousands of little swatches of tape.

In media centers, dormitories and arena bathrooms, pieces of tape cover logos of fire extinguishers, light switches, thermostats, bedroom night tables, soap dispensers and urinals. The Taiden Industrial translation headsets in a large conference room have had their logos covered, as have the American Standard faucets in the bathrooms nearby, and the ThyssenKrupp escalators down the hall.

Even the sign atop the InterContinental Beijing Beichen hotel, attached to the Main Press Center, has been obscured by an Olympic cloth wrap. InterContinental Hotels Group isn't an Olympic sponsor. Gary Rosen, a spokesman for Intercontinental, says the company doesn't mind complying with the brand restrictions because it had planned all along to formally open the hotel following completion of the Games.

The International Olympic Committee says that such "brand protection" is essential for the Games to raise the corporate money that keeps them going and growing. The Games get 40% of their revenue from sponsors, with the rest coming from broadcast rights, ticketing and licensing. Sponsors of China's Games, believed to be the most lucrative ever, have contributed some $1.5 billion in cash, goods and services, estimates sports-marketing group Octagon.

The IOC says the brand-protection practices here in Beijing are consistent with procedures at past Olympics. Actual enforcement of IOC sponsorship-protection rules falls mostly to whichever city is hosting the Games, however, and by some indications no host has taken that role more seriously than China. In many cases, even products that don't compete with anything made by official sponsors are having their logos covered.

"It's surprising they'd go to that extent," says Toshihiko Shibuya, a spokesman for Matsushita Electric Industrial, which makes Panasonic products. "We're happy that they've taken the effort to hide the names of products in our category," he says.

But he finds it "very bizarre" that even toilet fixtures would have brand names covered up.

Broadest rights to use the Olympics name and logo belong to a dozen so-called world-wide partners such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Visa and Samsung Electronics. Local backers, including Bank of China, Volkswagen and Adidas this year, get marketing rights in the host country.

In Beijing, sponsors are sometimes being protected even from other sponsors. Matsushita's Mr. Shibuya, for instance, says that in the Athletes' Village, "we're finding that even if they use Panasonic fridges or washing machines, our brand name is covered up because the local [sponsor] in those categories is Haier," the Chinese electronics maker. "It's a funny thing, but that's the policy," he says.

Naturally, curious minds tend to wonder what's under the tape. A few investigative journalists, bristling at all this control, have even removed pieces of tape.

Soon after a piece of tape is removed, however, a new one quickly appears -- thanks to Chinese workers charged with tape replacement. "We assign workers in [the Main Press Center] to check and replace tape that has been peeled off to make sure the tape still works every day," says a Chinese official in charge of that work at the MPC. The official, who would give only his surname, Yang, wouldn't say how many people are involved in that work.

The IOC and the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, known as Bocog, "have developed a robust brand-protection program for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games," says an IOC spokesman, "not only to protect the rights that our commercial partners have acquired, but also to continue the policy set out in the Olympic Charter" that limits the presence of brands in the competition venues. Also policed is so-called ambush marketing, in which nonsponsors seek to associate themselves with the Games, and athletes' uniforms, whose logos must be authorized and displayed in accordance with rules on size and placement.

Officials of Bocog aren't entirely inflexible. In the famous "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, for example, they left the logos on the TOTO Ltd. toilets, says Wu Kaifeng, an official in charge of sponsorship issues in the stadium. "We discussed it with the IOC, and they agreed not to cover these brands in the Bird's Nest with tape, which makes it more convenient for cleaning and makes the stadium look better," he says.

Source - Wall Street Journal


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