By  on August 6, 2008

BEIJING — International athletic brands have jumped on the Chinese bandwagon, so to speak. In an attempt to connect with the huge market, Olympic advertising campaigns are tapping into nationalist pride, using cultural symbols and playing on Chinese slogans and idioms.

And there’s a lot to play for: a nation of over 1.3 billion people where the consumer market is projected to hit $8.8 trillion by 2020, according to a Credit Suisse report last year.

“The brands are trying to capture this wave of nationalism sweeping the country,” said Ray Ally, executive director for brand consultancy Landor Associates. “They are trying to link the success that China is going to have at the Olympic Games with their brand.”

Adidas, an official Olympic sponsor, launched a campaign that resonates with China’s sense of national identity.

“We talked to Chinese consumers and found they were proud the Games were coming [to Beijing],” an Adidas spokeswoman said at the company’s new Beijing megastore, “but they themselves really wanted to be a part of it and get involved, too.”

The German brand gave consumers what they asked for with its campaign “Together in 2008 — Impossible Is Nothing.” The 60- and 30-second commercials feature star Chinese athletes narrating personal stories; they speak of disappointing home crowds with past performances and the pressure to win for the country. Eventually, the athletes accomplish their goals with the help of ordinary Chinese citizens. Diver Hu Jia, for example, is boosted into his backflip with the help of fans and dives into a sea of Chinese supporters. The message: The Chinese people are a huge force behind the Olympic Games.

The commercials were released over a period of several months, with the fifth and final one aired for the first time the week of July 21. The company also created “I Am Running With You,” a nationwide campaign for Chinese fans to show support for their favorite athletes by running a short distance wearing sequentially numbered Adidas bibs.

For its Olympics campaign, Reebok is leveraging its relationship with basketball star Yao Ming. Reebok translates the campaign slogan as “Fueling Yao’s Unlimited Power,” which is a play on jia you — literally “add gas” or “add fuel” — the standard cheer Chinese fans chant at athletic events. The commercial released here in China shows Yao running through a generic big city. Passersby fold into step behind him and are eventually absorbed by the 7-foot 6-inch basketball player. Like Adidas, the campaign underscores the role of regular Chinese citizens helping Chinese athletes win big.

Not every brand has found it easy to draw a link with China, however. Puma, for example, does not sponsor any Chinese athletes, and Sweden, Jamaica and Morocco are their sponsored federations.

“When I first looked at them, I thought, ‘Wow, how can we make these relevant to the Chinese consumers?’” said a China-based spokeswoman for Puma. “These are not countries they know about.”

To forge a connection, the brand took its star athletes and painted their faces in colorful, ethnic designs inspired by masks worn in traditional Chinese operas. Next to the athletes is the campaign slogan “Beijing Jian,” or “See you in Beijing.” The campaign includes print, in-store imagery and events, but few billboards. Citing strict government regulations, Puma chose to forgo heavy outdoor advertising within China. This hasn’t been a problem for Adidas, however; posters and billboard versions of its campaign plaster prime spots all over the Chinese capital.

Seizing on a beloved Chinese pastime, Puma also struck a deal with Cash Box, a popular karaoke chain. In exchange for purchases made in-store, customers receive vouchers for time in the Puma Song Zone, a decorated karaoke room.

While brands are eager to build their businesses in China, not all of them are developing ad campaigns aimed specifically at that nation’s consumers. Speedo and Nike, for instance, abstained from direct cultural references to the host country.

Speedo’s campaign rests on a single product, the LZR Racer. The brand released a 30-second commercial highlighting the evolution of the suit. During the Olympics, Speedo will release daily podcasts on its Web site, YouTube and tudou (a Chinese video-sharing site).

Nike is sticking with “Just Do It.” The Beijing campaign is rooted in the company’s “Courage” commercial, a 60-second montage of past and present glory for Nike athletes. The refrain “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” plays on a loop in the background.

When compared with its peers’ advertising, Nike’s Olympic campaign has a strong global, nonteam focus. The athletes in “Courage” represent more than 12 countries; the closing sequence showcases Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who lobbied to compete in the Olympics with prosthetic legs, and the song for the commercial is by the American band The Killers. Apart from a brief clip of hurdler Liu Xiang, the commercial is conspicuously absent of Chinese references.

“Nike has always been about individualism,” explained Tom Doctoroff, chief executive officer of Greater China for advertising agency JWT. “I would expect that Nike would want to make a statement of the greatness of the Chinese people, but [their advertising campaign] doesn’t need to be overtly nationalistic.”

And, ironically in a country where the Communist government has been cracking down on Internet access for both businesses and ordinary citizens, brands across the board have realized the importance of interactivity for Chinese consumers.

Reebok launched a Web site specifically for domestic fans tracking Yao’s support, i.e., the number of people who register by clicking on the “I want to ‘add fuel’ to Yao” link. A visit this past Friday showed nearly 4.8 billion supporters.

Puma is steering consumers to its Chinese language Web site to design virtual masks that can then be printed on blank T-shirts at select stores.

Nike launched the campaign “Who Are You?” on its Chinese Web site. The company asked its top Chinese athletes to reveal the key characteristics that make them successful (I am focus, I am breakthrough, etc.) and asked kids to do the same via video profiles.

Adidas has online games such as collecting and trading virtual cards, and video uploads related to its running campaign. One video shows a man in sunglasses saying “My name’s Xiaogang. In 2008, Liu Xiang: We’re running together!” (Liu Xiang is a Nike-sponsored athlete.) In the lasttwo months Adidas counts 1.2 million visitors spending more than 10 minutes on the brand’s Chinese language Web site. The recently opened Beijing megastore also features “micoach,” an interactive area where people can test their athletic skills.

“The Chinese love interactive things,” the Adidas spokeswoman observed from the sidelines of “micoach,” where a middle-aged woman in heels was sprinting in place as a computer calculated her speed.

The interactive advertising platforms again underline the importance of linking Olympic advertising in China with national pride. The Chinese want the Games to be a success. They can express those hopes by registering online at these brands’ Web sites to show support for their Olympic athletes.

Doctoroff best summed up why nationalism is vital for sports brands’ Olympic campaigns: “It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Games for the Chinese people,” he said. “The Olympics is not just ‘China is great.’ It’s ‘China is great, therefore I am great.’”

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