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By Charlotte McEleny, Asia Editor

January 30, 2018 | 4 min read

Alibaba has unveiled the first major branding effort for its decade-long partnership with the Olympics, creating an emotional connection to championing the underdog, both sporting and business-wise.

A key reasoning behind the partnership and the emotive stories it has built around this, is to translate Alibaba’s values globally, according to Leon Xie, general manager of Alibaba Group's Olympic business.

Speaking to The Drum the morning of the campaign’s launch, Xie explains that the campaign aimed to bridge the values of the company, which had been set almost 20 years ago when the business was founded by Jack Ma, with stories that transcend a singular language.

“The brand needs to have a vehicle to carry on and hit on a global stage. At this stage, we are still a new brand in the rest of the world. In China, we are still the most popular and powerful marketing platform but our primary goal is branding globally. Sponsorship provides us a big opportunity to showcase our technology and innovation by helping the Olympic family to transform the games into the digital era. We are also a young company and fast moving internet company, the Olympics has such a rich culture and heritage, so internally, because we are now doing business everywhere in the world (Southeast Asia today, Europe tomorrow), we need a common language other than english to unite our people to carry on the culture,” Xie says.

The TV ads for the campaign specifically, take on an emotional storytelling style, which was intentional for a number of reasons, according to Xie.

“The Olympics is an emotional thing; it is all about people,” he explains. “The emotional linkage in this case is everything, because it is not just to connect the brand to people, but because we have more than 60,000 people in company, it is all about sharing common themes and values.”

The three ads tell the tale of small in slightly different ways. One is a broader ad that links the theme to Alibaba’s brand values and history of helping small businesses. A second tells a true historical story of an Olympiad that stopped to let ducks pass in a race but still won. A third tells a true story of a Kenyan Ice hockey team that persevered, despite never having experienced ice.

“We think that shows our shared mission and of our business goal; the mission that we want to help underdogs and small businesses,” he says.

In terms of how it compares to Alibaba’s style and tone prior to this, it is not its first foray into emotional storytelling but it’s taking a more global, less Chinese approach for this campaign, in recognition that different messages work in different contexts.

“The aim of this is international and we’ve been careful not to copy and paste what we have done in China. The idea is, in becoming global, we can share with the rest of the world that although coming from China means a very different environment culturally and economically, we can say we are all the same,” he said.

In comparison to previous activities, it also measures up as the biggest partnership that Alibaba has signed to date, with a ten year commitment to transforming the Olympics through its cloud technology.

“I would say this is the largest scale sponsorship in Alibaba's history, we not done anything close to this scale in terms of the level and the long term commitment. This commitment is all the way to 2028. Such a long time provides us with a great time frame to focus and build up the brand for our global ambition and business purpose. It is also the opportunity to work with the Olympic family and use technology towards move them into a digital era,” he explains.

According to Alibaba, it is already working with some of the other Olympics sponsors like P&G and Coca-Cola, to help power their own sponsorships, including e-commerce.

The campaign launched to the public today and will roll out across different offline and online channels throughout the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Xie concludes that while the momentum behind ‘To the Greatness of Small’ will be consistent throughout the decade, the campaign would change to remain relevant to the locations and context around each Olympics, through Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

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