Olympic Heat?

The orgy is getting crowded. And there's no romance. With two years remaining on the Beijing 2008 Olympic countdown, everyone is jumping into the fray. The Games' priceless five-ring logo is seen everywhere, slapped on mainland billboards by marketers of all shapes and sizes. Liu Xiang, the iconic gold-medalist sprinter, stars in at least eight campaigns, adorning everything from Nike television commercials to Visa and Lenovo billboards. The Beijing Organizing Committee for the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) has knighted 36 official sponsors -- including three local beers -- and rumors suggest that there are more to come.

How come it's getting so hot? The Beijing Olympics herald the dawn of a truly bipolar economic world order. It's the story of the century. A new superpower will step proudly onto the stage and stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States. The Games enable Chinese companies such as Lenovo (computers) and Haier (appliances) to address a global audience just as local enterprises begin to expand beyond China's borders. And multinationals such as Coke and Visa can leverage the Olympics, a cause célèbre to which every citizen has pledged his soul, to have a dialog with China's new, surging middle class. To get a hint of the latter's scale, here are a couple of headline statistics:

* There are nearly 600 million mobile-phone users in the People's Republic of China.
* Despite limited (per capita) disposable income, China is the world's third-largest consumer of luxury goods. More than 80 percent of Beijing couples get married with a diamond ring.
* There are more than 70 Starbucks in Shanghai alone. And the Chinese don't even like coffee!

But despite the mainland's infatuation with brands and the progress they represent, the pell-mell frenzy to burnish corporate credentials is still leaving consumers cold. On an emotional level, it is impossible to overstate the Games' importance to the Chinese people. They represent the culmination of China's struggle to recover from 160 years of colonial degradation and command economic stagnation. The Chinese people, hungry for global face, are increasingly edgy that the nation's coming-out party could be a bust. And, frustratingly, few companies have positioned themselves as true partners in the Games' success, universally acknowledged as the touchstone of the viability of superpower status.

Local companies, some as obscure as textile manufacturer Heng Yuan Xiang, are doing what they do best: creating lots and lots of noise, hoping to establish themselves as "international standard" players. Most will fail, stupefying audiences with basso-profundo voice-overs, shoddily reproduced Olympic logos and no meaningful proposition. However, a few actually integrate relevant insights into their Olympic communications. Milk company Yili also features Liu Xiang but in gripping, humorous advertising that encourages young children to "make China proud" and "beat our Olympic superstar."

On the MNC front, the Games have not yet begun. Local competitors, for the time being, are more cacophonous than their international brethren. Surprisingly, neither Nike nor Adidas efforts have begun in earnest. There are exceptions: Visa has jumped on the Liu Xiang bandwagon, plastering airports and bus shelters with irrelevant images of various travel destinations. General Electric and UPS fare better. In ubiquitous outdoor and print, they link their goods and services to operational triumph or environmental responsibility during the Games themselves.

As far as the Chinese nation is concerned, the Olympics are the most aggressive brand-building exercise in human history, affording a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the PRC to anoint itself as both a New Horizon travel destination and glittering, eco-friendly powerhouse. Disconcertingly, Beijing is blowing it. One does not discern a coordinated effort by BOCOG -- or any corner of the Middle Kingdom's elephantine bureaucracy -- to project a modern, user-friendly image of 21st-century China. The Games' tagline -- "One World, One Dream" -- seems predigested by a subcommittee of politically correct septuagenarians. The mascots are even blander: Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini -- Beijing huanying ni means "Welcome to Beijing" -- are ultra-neotonized cartoon critters that make Mickey Mouse seem sinister by comparison. They neither provoke nor intrigue. To date, the Communist Party has not fueled optimism that the Olympics will not be staged as anything more than an unenlightened Orwellian propaganda party. The nation's spirit will have to be projected by its inspiring people and star-reaching athletes, not the Ministry of Tourism.

In summary, with the exception of two or three corporations', marketing efforts have started with a whimper. The good news, of course, is that the playing field remains wide open for savvy advertisers to touch the heart of 1.3 billion Chinese. The countdown clock, however, is ticking.