The Olympics, Lenovo and the IOC Corporate "Social Compact"

A recent informative New York TImes essay explores how big Olympic corporate sponsors are navigating the opportunities (and vulnerabilities) connected to Beijing.
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There's a really excellent June 19 piece in the New York Times on Lenovo -- the Chinese computer company that is the new incarnation of IBM laptops, having swallowed the Thinkpad. The informative essay by Stephanie Clifford explores how big Olympic corporate sponsors are navigating the opportunities (and vulnerabilities) connected to Beijing.

According to the article, Lenovo:

won't exactly be highlighting its home-field advantage. Although Lenovo's largest shareholder is the Chinese government and its biggest operations are in Beijing, Americans who watch ads during the Olympics this August will see only a company that wants to show off its technology.

"In China, the advertising will be very much leveraging the heritage of a Chinese company," said Glen Gilbert, Lenovo's vice president for brand management. But "in the U.S., we won't be making direct mention of that."

Lenovo is not trying to hide its Chinese roots, Mr. Gilbert said. Rather, it wants to position Lenovo as a global brand and highlight the quality of its computers. "In terms of priorities, we have so much more that we will be conveying," he said.

Whatever the intention, the strategy makes sense in light of the political outcry over Beijing as an Olympics host."

Clifford is on the edge of a pretty big question: what stories will the main sponsors (so-called TOP Sponsors, short for the boring moniker "The Olympic Programme") tell about themselves, about China and about the future of sports, as subtexts in their own coverage. Take a look at "The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-event", which talks about "the "IOC's commitment to a market-oriented, private-sector partnership approach to financing the Olympics." The authors call this part of an "Olympics social compact," one that provides an extraordinary convergence... between modern Olympism and the ideals and tendencies of market capitalism."

This political economy approach is also discussed in a chapter by Alan Tomlinson, "Olympic Values, Beijing's Olympic Games, and the Universal Market," available in the online edition of "Owning the Olympics, Narratives of the New China."

A bit more history on Lenovo from the New York Times article:

the company agreed to buy I.B.M.'s personal computer business, a deal that put Lenovo's name on the American radar screen -- and under heavy scrutiny. Because of Lenovo's affiliation with the Chinese government, American officials raised the question of whether the Chinese government would be taking over the critical federal contracts that I.B.M. had handled, and the American business community deplored the deal as sad evidence of China's growing economic supremacy. The transaction closed in 2005 without formal opposition.

To clear the hurdle of public acceptance, Lenovo decided to play down its Chinese heritage and focus on telling business customers that "not much has changed -- same people, same processes, same products," Mr. Advani said. "If we were to lose those customers, then it would be a very deep hole we would have to dig ourselves out of."

To that end, Lenovo kept using the I.B.M. logo on the ThinkPad. Though Lenovo had the rights to the I.B.M. name for five years, Mr. Advani drew up a plan to phase it out, using the Turin and Beijing Olympics as turning points. It was a move analysts applauded.

Clifford has also blogged about Barack Obama's possible Olympic buy: think of this, presidential candidate as global brand, gathering the global interest Obamania, and honing it through association with this transnational, sort-of-multicultural, sort of peace-related media mega-event

Stephanie Clifford looks like a bright and original new face writing about business and advertising in the New York Times. For a sprightly note about her background, see the note circulated at the Times when she was appointed.

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