Brand Advisory: Olympics Are Bad For China

The Marketing Doctor says:

The Olympics Are Bad For China’s Brand And Vice Versa


 Sometimes a brand is just not ready to take center stage.  That brand is China. And sometimes when one brand stumbles badly, it brings another brand down with it.  That brand is the Olympics.

For almost a year, we’ve watched as China has struggled to get ready for this massive event.  They’ve cleaned up algae from their waters, battled pollution, built massive buildings including the largest airport in the world…   And now you can becertain that once these games kick off, the old, heroic storylines will betrotted out to salvage NBC’s and others’ huge investments in the Games.(Remember Athens and how nothing was going to be ready in time… But then it was and everything was suddenly terrific!)

Except this time the brand damage has already been done; and it’s been done in part because thebrand itself wasn’t ready for the kind of incredible scrutiny that the magnifying glass of Olympic media coverage brings with it. 

This week, The Economist made the point that Olympic pressures actually forced the Chinese government to become more oppressive, not less, in the run-up to the Games.  In other words, according to the magazine, the Olympics were indirectly responsible for more oppression.

The magazine says that in recent years Chinese authorities had been giving their people more and more freedom, but the preparations for the Olympics resulted in political dissidents being locked up and harassed, and ordinary citizens losing their homes to makeway for the sports facilities.  Why? 

Fact is, China was not ready to assume the Olympic mantle and took the kind of extreme measures that its authoritarian system allows (but theworld deplores).

This is bad news for the China brand and bad news for the Olympic brand, because the Olympics ends up looking like a partner in the oppression.  Maybe not wanting to appear this way was one reason why Spielberg walked away from any involvement in the event months ago.

To win the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games, China vowed in its winning action plan to “be open in every aspect” and even changed its constitution to protect human rights. 

But the pressure ofhaving to play catch-up has caused China to backpedal and the Olympics to go along with the backpedaling –just last week we learned that Olympic officials seemed to have allowed China to censor and control the Internet.

What China needed (and needs) was a brandover.  A brandover is not the same as a makeover.  A brandover is about recognizing core brand features and making sure that the package reflects the innerreality. 

But what China has attempted is a makeover.  A makeover is superficial.  The New York Times reports on how some residents and shop owners of Beijing have suddenly found their streets and storefronts blocked from view by giant brick walls built by crews protected by the police.  This is makeover at gunpoint. 

If there is one central rule of branding it is this: never launch your brand until it’s readyto be launched. 

The global market today demands two big things from nation brands: openness and democratic rights.  Even nations that don’t really have these characteristics have to act like they do.  This includes China and Russia

But a brand like that of a packaged good has core features and related features.  The core features are what the brand really is —it’s the truth about the brand. The related features are the packaging —in China’s case the huge airport, the shiny new buildings, et cetera. 

You don’t want to gopublic until your core features are all nailed down and in line with your related features.  You can’t do the packaging without the core features reinforcing it. 

(Step outside country branding for a minute to see how this principle works in product land. When Apple launched Newton, it failed because the product had been rushed to market.  And let’s not forget Microsoft’s latest operating system, Vista, that users seem to hate it went to market withoutbeing fully tested.  You just don’t want to go to market until you have removed any core feature flaws.)

In China’s case, their brand is just not ready for the limelight.  To fix pollution, they shut down factories and force people not to drive.  To beautify the Olympic city, they evict people from their homes.  To keep things running smoothly, they lock up dissidents and shut down Internet access.   

I was also shocked to watch one of the NBC commentators complaining about the weather and the air… it made me think that this broadcasting professional either had severe jet lag oreven he couldn’t put a positive spin on conditions over there.   

The bottom line is that no matter what happens in the next two weeks, I believe that two world-class brands have been hurt here.

And remember, it’s always easier when you keep branding in mind!


Never launch your brand until it is ready to handle the scrutiny.


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