By David Wolf
As you read these words, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, announced six years ago, are now less than a year away. And nobody, including the athletes, is more nervous than the sponsors and their marketing teams.
A lot of companies engage in marketing programs that associate their brands with sports. From the international relocation firm that sponsors my five-year-old son's soccer program to the companies who plaster their names on uniforms, stadiums, and fast cars around the world, a growing number of businesses see the value in investing in "sports marketing."
Olympic Sponsorship is Not CSR
Several things set the Olympics apart. The Olympics is global. It covers a wide range of sports. It is a pinnacle event, meaning that in most of the sports involved you can reach no higher than Olympic champion. It occurs every four years.
But there is one more thing that, in the mind of sponsors, sets the Olympics on a higher plane than even the Superbowl, The World Series, or the World Cup. It is the unspoken conviction that the Olympics is somehow the last form of pure athletic endeavour, and that supporting the Olympics is somehow a good thing, in and of itself.
But any company (and I guarantee you, there will be a few in the coming months) that attempts to frame their support of the Olympics as some form of corporate social responsibility should be publicly ridiculed. Olympic sponsorship is a marketing exercise, pure and simple, and should be universally acknowledged as such.
Olympic Sponsors Need CSR
In the case of the 2008 Olympiad, as perhaps in no other games of the Modern Olympics, the world's activist community seems ready to make use of the event to take sponsors publicly to task. Already, it seems like any activist with a cause that peripherally touches on China is planning on hijacking some of the attention focused on the Olympics to make their case.
Setting aside the argument over whether the activists are correct or not, at the very least activists are set to ensure that sponsorship is for the first time both an asset and a potential liability. Sponsoring companies cannot wait for the volume of protest to reach a crescendo before they act. They have to engage their detractors and at the same time be prepared to demonstrate that not only their Olympic sponsorship but also their very business activities in China redound to the good of the nation and its people.
If for no other reasons than these, any Olympic sponsor who is not planning a significant upgrade in its CSR effort in China in the next year is ignoring the power of the microscope under which their sponsorship and local operations are about to be put.
At the same time, these firms need to conduct CSR programs that are genuinely designed to deliver greater benefits to the community than the companies themselves reap. Otherwise it won't be CSR – it will be a defensive fig leaf, and the gadflies will see through such efforts.
Real Olympic CSR
There are plenty of options out there for the creative sponsor, but one stands out for its true dedication to the value of sport to ordinary people, and that is Special Olympics. The movement begun in the United States by Senator Sergeant Shriver and his wife Eunice (nee Kennedy) Shriver now encompasses 2.5 million athletes with intellectual disabilities in more than 165 countries.
Their efforts in China – particularly daunting in the face of widespread ignorance about intellectual disabilities – have already had considerable success, not least of which is this year's Special Olympics World Summer Games to be held in Shanghai in October. For all of their successes, however, they need more support in China, and who better to deliver that support than the corporations that want to make a genuine difference to an almost forgotten and widely misunderstood group of Chinese people.
Activists aside, the companies who lined up to sponsor the Beijing games are set to benefit mightily from the actual event, if in no other way than in goodwill from the nation and its people. The price of that reward does not end with the check written to the IOC and the organizers – it ends in fulfilling the obligation those companies have in the public eyes to leave China a better place for having taken part in the games here.
An Olympian challenge, no doubt. But we still have a year to go.
About the author:
David Wolf, President and CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a management advisory firm providing strategic communications counsel to technology, media, entertainment, and telecommunications companies in Greater China and the Asia-Pacific region. He is also Contributing Editor for China CSR. David's opinions are his own and do not reflect those of either WGA or its clients.