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Airbnb, Coca-Cola and Visa look for positives in Tokyo 2020 postponement

  • Airbnb uses Olympic athletes to showcase shift to virtual experiences
  • Coca-Cola bemoans package printing challenges
  • Visa hopes increased hygiene requirements will speed transition to cashless payments

Three leading brands from the International Olympic Committee’s TOP Partner programme have described how they have had to adapt their marketing strategies due to the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games.

Chris Curtin, chief brand & innovation marketing officer, Visa; Ricardo Fort, VP global sports & entertainment partnerships at The Coca-Cola Company and Aoife McArdle, global head of Olympics for Airbnb, spoke about their experiences during a webinar organised by the Marketing Society.

Airbnb the newcomer

While Coca-Cola is the IOC’s longest-running TOP Partner having sponsored the Games since 1928, and Visa’s association has been in place since 1986, Airbnb is a relative newcomer having signed a nine-year deal with the IOC in November 2019.

As the accommodation provider’s Olympic sponsorship lead, McArdle explained how the Covid-19 pandemic and the decision to push the Games back until July 2021 has forced the company to activate its rights online, in keeping with changes in the company’s broader strategy.

At the time the deal was announced, Airbnb promised to launch a new suite of “Airbnb Olympian Experiences”, which would serve to promote the platform as more than a homestay provider and create direct earning opportunities for athletes. The new category would have included chances to train with Olympians in person and explore cities with elite athletes. But restrictions on international travel and social distancing requirements have necessitated a complete change of focus.

“These were supposed to be real-life connections between athletes, fans and travelers around the world and obviously, human connection in a pandemic was not exactly something that was a good idea,” said McArdle. “So we had to shut down the entire business of experiences, which was a pretty devastating impact, not only for Airbnb, but also for our community of hosts who are sharing and depending economically on hosting.

“A few weeks after the pandemic hit really hard, we pivoted for our host community and launched online experiences where the same hosts instead were finding new ways to share their passions virtually online.”

The company used its Olympic sponsorship to promote the shift by creating a five-day festival of online experiences hosted by more than 100 Olympians and Paralympians in late July. McArdle said the thinking at the firm was that the pivot to digital experiences might not be temporary.

“We’re convinced that the travel industry will never be the same again,” she added. “I would say the Games will never be the same again, but that’s not necessarily a negative – I see that as a positive. I think that when we look back at this time it’s going to drive some new initiatives and opportunities and changes from a sustainability perspective.”

Coca-Cola’s packaging problem

Coca-Cola’s Fort was able to draw on a larger array of experiences as an Olympic sponsor but said even he was surprised by the levels of disruption caused by the postponement. Only one of his predecessors had had to deal with a curtailment of an Olympics in the brand’s 92-year association with the Games – and that was a consequence of the Second World War. As a retailer of physical products, he said Coca-Cola faced a completely different set of problems.

“It’s really hard to explain the magnitude of the logistical [problems] and the impact on the programmes that we have developed,” he said. “Unlike Airbnb or Visa who operate in the digital world, we print cans and labels and we have point-of-sales material.

“We have trucks that are decorated to be used for the next year; we have to store packaging that has already been printed.”

He argued that long-term sponsors like Coca-Cola would be better positioned to deal with the consequence of the postponement than those brands planning shorter associations with the Games because he believed the Olympic brand will ultimately come back stronger after the pandemic. As a result, he said the problems created by the postponement were less to do with sponsorship strategy and more to do with ‘execution’ – including how to activate Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics so soon after the 2021 Tokyo event.

“I guess the first realisation is: yes, there is a delay in the delivery of value that we acquired, but the value will come, so the plans and strategies shouldn’t change because of that,” he said.

“There are a lot of short- term tactics that have to be adopted but there is still going to be a great event next year and we will be able to do what we were planning to do, and hopefully even more. So from a strategic point it doesn’t change. When you look from a more granular level some of the global sponsors are involved in a lot of different events with a lot of different rights-holders and the calendar is going to be messy – and it’s going to be messy for several years – and we have to figure out how to work with all the partners in a way that makes sense and we can still drive the growth of our businesses.”

Visa’s hospitality plans on hold

Visa’s Chris Curtin, disputed the idea that the payment provider didn’t have any problems with physical products and packaging, pointing to the fact that it had special edition cards and related products being shipped in for the Games.

“We had stuff on cargo ships coming in from Europe and you can actually track these cargo ships on a global radar. To see some of these cargo ships turn around […] was just tough to see,” he said.

Visa had also planned to entertain over 15,000 card-holder clients from over 200 markets at the Games and showcase its products in the Japanese market.

“We had four waves of CEOs who were to go there because we wanted to expose them to what Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe is doing with Japan, which has a rich history of both honouring its past but also looking forward to its future and [which has] embraced a cashless Japan,” said Curtin.

Ultimately, however, he indicated increased hygiene requirements might help the brand to encourage a shift to cashless transactions in society.

“We’re in conversations with TOCOG [the Tokyo organizing Committee] and the IOC about bringing some of the best in Visa to touchless experiences,” he said.

“And we believe we can bring those touchless experiences to the physical layout of the games themselves next year and [showcase] this kind of ‘world of tomorrow’, that hopefully the world will come back to.”

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