Will HK's success in sports see more marketing dollars for emerging athletes?

Yesterday marked the end of the Paralympic games. Over the last month, news around Paralympics and Olympics dominated our local news outlets. In fact, according to data from Meltwater this year we saw 560,000 mentions of Hong Kong athletes during the Olympic games. 

Largely this can be attributed to the phenomenal performance or other incidents of Hong Kong athletes. For example, Edgar Cheung Ka-long has made history taking home the gold in the men’s individual foil event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; while Siobhan Haughey won two silvers as she made Hong Kong's swimming team's history in the 200m freestyle race and 100 freestyle race.

Leung Yuk-wing won a bronze medal at the Boccia Mixed Individual BC4 event; Chu Man-kai won the silver medal in the final of the SH6 badminton and mixed pairs boccia team won a silver medal at the BC4 event finals at Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games too.

The controversy around Hong Kong badminton player Angus Ng being heavily criticised by a pro-Beijing lawmaker and some netizens for wearing a black jersey that was missing Hong Kong's Bauhinia emblem in a Tokyo Olympics match, also garnered some attention.

Upon the return of the athletes, many local brands also celebrated their success. While brands supporting athletes who have received international glory is understandable, this support should be done in a sustainable manner, with a continuous effort – rather than a flash in the pan.

Some brands such as VISA Hong Kong, have led the way, supporting the likes of Edgar Cheung, and naming him brand ambassador of VISA Hong Kong since 2019.

Speaking to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE on the need for brand support regardless of win or loose, is Jonathan Cummings, APAC president of Landor & Fitch.

“Brand advocacy is a two-way street,” he said. Just as brands work with successful athletes to raise their profiles, brands too have the ability to raise the profile of rising sports stars. “The raw star power of many athletes is an instant way to resonate with and attract consumers.” Cummings added that what is important in any sponsorship is sustainability – be it through marketing or advocacy.

One form of sustained and continuous effort is by supporting a rising star all the way till he becomes a mature athlete in his space. However, too often, brands clamour around superstar athletes, rather that up and coming ones.

How can working with athletes benefit brands?

Cummings added that there are some benefits that athletes can offer. For example, the momentous and ephemeral nature of watching live sports is often followed by a sustained fandom for athletes off the pitch. "Sports are universal, it’s not bound by any cultural or linguistic barriers and the followers of the athletes are from everywhere. That's why footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has the most followers on Instagram, while Nike, adidas and Under Armour are among the highest value apparel brands. It’s because they leverage the universal appeal of sports in their own brand expression."

When it comes to forming a partnership, both brands and athletes need to carefully consider the merits of the partnership. "To be truly valuable, athletes must be clear on the objectives of the brand, and brands must have an awareness and empathy for the career of the athletes," said Holly Millward, regional managing director for APAC at CSM Sport & Entertainment.

Moreover, customers are now expecting more from brands from a moral responsibility perspective. Millward explained, "Of course, there is an increased importance placed on brands for ‘behaving’ in the right way, with a spotlight on protecting the mental health of athletes where competition and corporate obligations are combined."

The rise of content marketing in sports

The sustenance of fame an athlete acquires today also has a shelf life. This is where content marketing plays a huge role. Millward explained, "Athletes are creators. When they offer a compelling narrative, it will become cost effective and authentic.”

Such content is not only a way for an athlete to remain relevant, but also creates a powerful values for brands who support these athletes. Brands are also now applying successful data strategies to promotional content, offering the opportunity to better understand and grow audiences and loyalty, explained Millward.

But of course, when working with an athlete, brands need to also make ample room for the athletes regular regimes, practice and preparations – which makes working with them rather bumpy for some brands.

Getting noticed through a global sporting event

This year’s Olympics also saw a fair number of Chinese brands making their presence felt. For example, according to Global Times, Alibaba launched products and services related to the Tokyo Olympics, unveiling the Alibaba Cloud Pin, a cloud-based digital pin for broadcasting and media professionals at the Tokyo Olympics. The digital wearable enables users to exchange daily activity updates, while maintaining social distancing.

Also, Alibaba announced that one of its major initiatives for the Tokyo Olympics would be the expansion of the Olympic Broadcasting Services Cloud, as it would use Alibaba Cloud's technologies to transform the media experience related to the games. It also worked with Intel to host AI-powered 3D Athlete Tracking Technology via Alibaba Cloud, which uses AI to analyse videos of athletes and generate 3D models of them to help their training.

Erica Kerner, SVP, marketing strategy and partnerships, ONE Championship, said Chinese brands' participation at the Olympic Games has changed a lot since 2008 – which was the year China hosted the Olympic Games for the first time and gave many Chinese brands an audience on the international stage. 

"At that time, most of the Chinese domestic or International Olympic Committee (IOC) top partner brands were mostly focused on the Chinese market and Chinese fans. Today, although the Chinese market may still be at the core of their reasons for sponsoring the Olympic Games, it is now also about opening up international sales channels and a way to take market share away from their global competitors," she said.

In 2017, Alibaba announced a long-term partnership with IOC through 2028. Alibaba Group joined The Olympic Partner (TOP) worldwide sponsorship programme, becoming the official cloud services and e-commerce platform services partner, as well as a founding partner of the Olympic Channel.

Meanwhile, Kuaishou won broadcasting rights to the next two Olympic Games too, planning to set up a channel to broadcast more than 600 matches. These matches are expected to be viewed more than 60 billion times, according to the same report from Global Times. 

Ashley Dudarenok, founder of ChoZan and Alarice, said this year's discussion about the Olympics was unprecedented. "Increased digitalisation has made the dissemination of the Olympic Games information faster on Chinese social media. Livestreaming and short videos were also making it easier for people to get information quickly too," she said. 

Apart from online presence, Chinese companies were paying attention to the viewing experience. Dudarenok said Migu Video, an app that was not popular before the Olympics, got a lot of attention because it offered free yet real-time broadcasts of the Olympic Games, and it ended up topping the App Store download list because of this. 

Speaking to a global audience

According to Kerner, being part of the Olympics also resulted many Chinese brands  taking on an internationalised stature and image. Kerner cited an example of Samsung when Seoul hosted the Olympic Games in 1988. She explained that when Samsung first joined the Olympic Games, the company was seen as a “very Korean brand" but now they are a true global powerhouse recognised by fans all over the world. Possibly, the same fate will await many Chinese brands.

"As fans become more familiar with these brands at the Olympic Games and other major sporting events, they will regard them as top international brands. This is already true for Alibaba and other non-Olympic brands such as Vivo, Hisense and Oppo, who are all making significant international sporting investments,” she said. “Also, let’s not forget that these international sponsorships also work well at home in China, and spark strong patriotism and nationalism among the Chinese fans.”

Photo courtesy: Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China

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