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Agility and authenticity key for APAC marketers to prepare (again) for the 2021 Olympics

By Chloe Rees | Account director

September 25, 2020 | 6 min read

The challenge of Tokyo 2021 is to deliver an authentic message across diverse cultural contexts all on a global scale and in the appropriate language, says Chloe Rees, the account director for Singapore at Flashtalking.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were destined to be a landmark event for Asia Pacific marketers. The 2021 Tokyo Olympics are even higher stakes.

The Olympics remain an unparalleled opportunity for global advertisers, providing the means to reach a diverse, engaged, and massive international audience over two straight weeks. Tokyo 2020 was shaping up to be a record year for broadcasters, too, with network sponsorships selling out faster than ever. In a more globalised world, the Olympics provides one of the few sure bets in global media.


Tokyo 2020 was shaping up to be a record year for broadcasters, too, with network sponsorships selling out faster than ever.

Suddenly, this mainstay of the marketing calendar is a highly dynamic situation, an entirely new cultural and economic context. Consumers will expect better from advertisers this time around. They’ll need to be accountable, thoughtful, attuned to the realities of the moment. Authenticity is paramount. To the old mantra “right person, right time, right message,” 2020 has responded by adding “right tone.”

Tokyo 2021 asks that advertisers deliver sensitive messages to diverse audiences in a complex and messy situation. It’s a moment that calls for true dynamic creativity in both the organisation and the message.

A complex world just got more complex

The Olympics are the quintessential global media event, and for many marketers, this means activating campaigns in multiple international markets at once. Delivering a consistent and relevant message means translating into several languages, and taking into account cultural, economic, and geographical signals - a daunting task even under normal circumstances. Marketers based in APAC, an irreducibly diverse region home to half the world’s population and over 2000 languages, are accustomed to managing this cultural and linguistic complexity.

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Covid-19 has added a new dimension, and unlike other variables, this one is a moving target. Different regions have very different experiences with the pandemic; some have been more affected than others, and their economies are recovering at different paces and with different measures (and that’s to speak nothing of the political and cultural dimensions of the pandemic that intersect very concretely with sports, an area that has become a flashpoint for differing views). It’s impossible to predict what these experiences will become next summer. The pandemic has also coincided with social and economic upheaval, accelerating important confrontations with difficult issues like racism, sexism, ableism, and all other forms of inequality and injustice.

Marketers must account for the variability of a changing world and also participate meaningfully in affecting positive change. They cannot sit on the sidelines. Striking the right balance requires real tactical capability in dynamic creative - the facility to create and implement decision trees that can adjust creative around important signals in real time. At a tactical level, this requires the right technology and infrastructure, but it’s nothing if the underlying creative is not compelling.

Crossing borders and overcoming barriers

APAC marketers have managed this complexity by building on timeless and universal themes that translate well across borders - which is to say: the themes that hardly need to be translated at all. Olympics advertising has always excelled in telling stories about uniting the nation, about the hometown hero and the “against all odds” underdog.

These themes still resonate, but they resonate differently today. The heroism and camaraderie of the Olympic sports have always provided a great structure for reaching across borders, but today that message must address itself to breaking down barriers and uniting us across new boundaries and healing new wounds. For example, Nike strikes the right balance with the stunning visual simplicity of its “You Can’t Stop Us” campaign, which brings together different sports, cultures, genders, and nationalities into a unifying message. The story tells itself without the voiceover.

The challenge of Tokyo 2021 is to deliver an authentic message across diverse cultural contexts all on a global scale and in the appropriate language. No small task. But with the right technology, the right intentions, and another year to plan ahead, marketers can more than meet the challenge. But make no mistake: the totally unprecedented circumstances of the 2021 Olympics will force marketers to be at their best.

Chloe Rees is the account director for Singapore at Flashtalking.

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