Since the Olympic torch came home in May, the swarms of people thronging to catch a glimpse of the “sacred flame” have borne testament to the patriotic fervor successfully drummed up by Beijing in support of this summer’s games.
But the most remarkable aspect of the Olympic warm-up has not been mainlanders’ love of their country – rather it has been their love of the Beijing games’ corporate sponsors. On every single leg, national flags have been far outnumbered by emblems bearing the names of the three torch relay sponsors: Samsung, Lenovo and Coca-Cola.
In particular, Coke has done a sterling job of handing out free drinks, T-shirts and entertaining the crowds with the most tasty-looking “Coke float” your correspondent has ever seen – a platoon of luscious young girls dancing in skimpy outfits emblazoned with the world-famous brand name.
After the terrible publicity of the international leg of the torch relay – when angry pro-Tibet protests and Chinese nationalist posturing threatened to tear carefully nurtured corporate images to shreds – sponsors must be weeping for joy.
A dozen multinationals – which also include McDonalds and Kodak – paid a rumored US$100 million each to be global sponsors of the Beijing Olympics. An additional 11 – including Volkswagen, Adidas and Air China – handed over US$50 million each for the right to link ads within China to the games.
Samsung, Lenovo and Coca-Cola paid an additional US$30 million extra to sponsor the relay – perhaps the most effective way of ensuring massive exposure in every single province.
The torch relay is yet another reminder that however closer China edges towards global business norms, it still has the capacity to give marketing strategists an enormous headache.
Ten years ago companies were resigned to the fact that they would have to lose pots of money in China before they could make it. Today, the bucks are rolling in. But foreign firms need to be careful that their exposure to China does not besmirch their brands abroad. Had the big Olympic sponsors envisaged that the torch’s “journey of harmony” would became a focus for human rights activists worldwide, they would surely have been reluctant to back this summer’s sporting jamboree.
The chaos in London and Paris forced the global sponsors to tread a fine line between placating international human rights activists demanding companies take a stand against perceived Chinese abuses, and offending the vast army of mainland consumers – many of the sponsors’ biggest target this summer.
Tibetan groups warned Coca-Cola it would be “complicit in a humanitarian disaster” unless it pushed Beijing to drop Tibet from the torch route. The pressure group Dream for Darfur also issued a report card condemning 16 of the 19 major corporate sponsors.
But the domestic mass market remains so enticing that some relay backers will continue their charm offensive in Tibet, which is still reeling from recent riots against Beijing’s rule.
Volkswagen, which supplies the phalanx of vehicles that follows the torch on every leg of its mainland tour, is rumored to be rolling out a new 4×4 model in Lhasa on June 21, when the torch is due to pass through the Tibetan capital.
So commercial has the torch relay become that the biggest surprise so far was that the triumphant conquest of Mount Everest did not finish with a Lenovo flag firmly planted at the summit.