Despite protests, sponsors anticipate Olympic boost

Coca-Cola Co. cheerleaders perform on a truck in the Olympic torch relay May 5 in Qionghai, China. Some torch relay sponsors cut back marketing abroad after Tibet activists tried to disrupt the run, but they are moving forward with plans for marketing dur

Robert F. Bukaty

BEIJING — As protests flared along the Olympic torch route, games sponsor BHP Billiton Ltd. set up a different clash: A basketball game against one of the Australian miner's key Chinese customers.

The match was part of a family day with 800 children of Maanshan Iron & Steel Co. employees, one of a series of Olympic-themed BHP events meant to nurture ties with Chinese customers and officials.

"This country is critical to our business," said Karen Wood, a BHP executive.

Companies that are spending millions of dollars to tie their brands to the games have faced daunting public relations challenges, coping with security concerns, public anguish over the toll from the May 12 earthquake in China, Tibet protests and pressure from activists who want them to press Beijing to help end bloodshed in ally Sudan's Darfur region. But they are pushing ahead with ambitious marketing plans, confident they will get the boost they want, especially in China's fast-growing domestic market.

Torch relay sponsors Coca-Cola Co., Lenovo Group and Samsung Electronics

Corp. cut back marketing abroad after Tibet activists tried to disrupt the run. UPS Inc. canceled a media tour of its Olympic cargo-handling facility in April after Chinese officials barred reporters from the building.

But others, including General Electric Co. and McDonald's Corp., say plans to promote themselves in China and abroad are moving ahead unchanged.

Companies are eager to target Chinese consumers in a market where retail spending is growing at more than 20 percent per year.

Sponsors also could earn valuable political capital with Chinese officials for having stuck by the Beijing games through the protests.

Activists are pressing sponsors to lobby Beijing to use its influence with ally Sudan to help end bloodshed in the country's Darfur region. Companies have expressed concern but say they should avoid politics.

Sponsors still are vulnerable to possible missteps that might alienate consumers in China or abroad, especially as corporate spokespeople and athletes start talking to reporters ahead of the Aug. 8 opening of the games, said Damien Ryan, a Hong Kong-based consultant on media strategy.

"This is when really tough questions are going to be asked," Ryan said. "A wrong response, a poorly worded statement to the media or the inability to answer some of these questions clearly and concisely may lead to vulnerability and potential holes in their marketing."

BHP has held 110 Olympic-themed events over the past two years in places as far-flung as Australia's tiny Groote Island and Mozambique in East Africa, with basketball and volleyball games and appearances by former Olympians. In China, the company plans to hold eight events with local corporate partners and major customers.

Lenovo is supplying computers for the games, which will showcase its technology before a global audience, said spokesman Robert J. Page.

"We don't see any slowing down in how we position ourselves and use this as an example of what we can do," Page said.