This is a cautionary tale, and the folks who should be cautioned are those atop the corporate pyramids across the land.
The International Olympic Committee will decide in July of this year whether or not Beijing is awarded the Summer Games for the 2008 Olympics. By any reasonable measure, the games ought to go to Paris or Toronto (Istanbul and Osaka, Japan are also in the hunt). But Beijing is favored, not only because of its near miss in 2000, but also because of the perceived commercial opportunities posed by the potential markets of the People’s Republic of China.
In the aftermath of the Hainan Island crisis, however, and in the midst of continuing human rights violations from the detention of American residents traveling through the country to the brutal suppression of the Falun Gong, the bright picture painted by the Beijing Committee has been marred. The official bid can be reviewed online.
Exploring this site yields some surprises. Under the heading of supporters, the surfer finds some venerable American names, including GM and Xerox. These names are attached to what are most likely licensees of the American parent, but it’s a shock nonetheless. The biggest shock of all comes from the presence of the trademark of a venerable Yankee beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon. What in the world, I asked myself, was this storied brew doing in these precincts?
I posed this question to my radio audience, and speculated as to the existence of a license. I also gave out the phone number of Pabst headquarters, and the modern consumer went to work.
At first Pabst responded to the inquiries with a few different and contradictory responses. Eventually the company’s new president, Brian Kovalchuk, got wind of the queries, ordered up a hard look and directed the company to get the story out. The head of national marketing came on my show and explained it was indeed the company’s mark on the website, put there by the company’s licensee over which the company did not retain control in such matters. The representative sounded very apologetic, and offered how this particular license would expire in the next couple of years, long before any Olympics would be held in Beijing.
The issue of Pabst’s mark appearing as a supporter of such games would be a subject of any new license agreement. While some of my listeners were unhappy that Pabst did not absolutely rule out any future involvement in the PRC and its Olympics, most were satisfied that the company had been blindsided by its licensee and had not intentionally sought out partnership with the increasingly repressive regime.
I was impressed by the new boss and his decision to get the facts out — a model response others would be well advised to follow when the question arrives at their door.
Of course, the subject wouldn’t even be raised vis-?-vis the Toronto or Paris Olympic bids (though it’s hard to imagine Pabst and Paris in the same breath). And therein is the cautionary tale: What’s the thinking on Madison Avenue and in the corporate boardrooms of those that normally would love to staple their logo all over the Summer Games of 2008?
This will be dangerous business for American companies that do a whole bunch of business with ordinary American consumers. Will Coke want to have its logo anywhere near Tiananmen Square, site of the infamous massacre? Will McDonald’s want its Golden Arches all over entrances to events where small groups of Falun Gong members may appear only to be dragged away? And do any of the big names dare court a backlash among its American consumer base should China provoke yet another (or perhaps many) confrontations with the United States?
I have to wonder whether even now the big guns of Olympic marketing aren’t talking softly to the influence brokers at the International Olympic Committee about the better part of valor. “Five-Ring Fever” is a well-known phenomenon, but even it can cool in a hurry if Mr. and Mrs. Joe Bag-o-Donuts decide that, if Mickey D’s goes to Beijing, they may well go to Burger King.
NBC must be concerned as well, as it must be still smarting from its impressive feat of depressing American interest in a Summer Games. (Quick, name five U.S. Olympic winners from 2000. Way to go, GE.) Does the network risk its own reputation as a newsgatherer if it sends all those video postcards from the PRC?
But the big questions touch on the sponsors. Are they enthusiastic about Beijing? Will they play if the games go there? Oddly, I haven’t seen any reporting on the subject from the Wall Street Journal or the business sections of the major dailies. So you may have to ask yourself: Write to Tom Ryan, National Marketing Director, McDonald’s, 2111 McDonald’s Drive, Oakbrook, IL 60523 or send a letter to the Coca Cola Company at PO Box 1734, Atlanta, GA 30301.
And if you would like to let the International Olympic Committee know your opinion, fax your comments to 011-41-21-621-6216.