Tokyo 2020: The year Olympic marketing had to be as agile as the athletes

Simon Elliott avatar

Simon Elliott

Olympic marketing is as big as it gets. Throw a global pandemic, a 12-month delay and growing opposition from the home nation into the mix and you’ve got to adapt like never before to stand out from your competitors throughout Tokyo 2020.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – a year late due to COVID-19 – starts today (July 23rd). There will be no spectators, the athletes will be subject to tight regulations and a reported two thirds of Japanese people don’t believe the International Olympic Committee can deliver the event safely and securely.

But well before the logistical challenges of hosting an event of this magnitude with the host city in a state of emergency, organisers have had to find ways to stay connected to a worldwide audience while riding out a year of uncertainty.

How they did it

On March 30th, 2020, at the start of the UK’s very first lockdown, the IOC and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games announced that the 2020 games were being rescheduled for 2021.

On June 23rd, 2020, the Giant Olympic Day Workout dropped on the Olympic YouTube channel – a 30minute film that not only tapped into the demand for physical activity during lockdown but created a world-first opportunity for anyone with an Internet connection to train with Olympic athletes from all over the globe.

On the day the 2020 games were originally due to start, the Stronger Together one-year countdown began instead, zoning in on the power of fitness and togetherness. This campaign, with people, resilience and hope at the heart, helped steady the narrative. Tokyo 2020 was able to move away from being the first Olympics to be postponed in the games’ 124-year history and reposition as something incredible to work towards and look forward to collectively, once all this was over.

The power of digital

In an unprecedented year, digital has been both the saving grace and the powerhouse of an Olympic campaign that must think globally and act locally. We’ve seen Olympic content step up on both quality and quantity, with bold assets that really capture the epic nature of the event and bring to life the stories within it.

Visit and you’ll find film after inspiring film, on everything from freestyle to Agnes Keleti – the oldest living Olympic Champion – and moving full-length documentaries like The Distance and The Invisible Bond. Sports fans can watch the special Olympic moments that inspired the athletes of today in one video, then learn how they wind down after competing in the next.

Ahead of the first Olympics to have skateboarding on the bill, Facebook have followed suit, commissioning four short films to highlight how their platforms played a vital role in forging the vast skateboarding communities of today.

All this rich, human-centric content inspires users by inviting them to share in the magic of past, present and future, building connection and excitement before a single race or event has taken place.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Getting personal with Tokyo 2020 content

For the first time, users are being given the power to filter and curate the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games content they want to receive. Create an account, set your preferences and you’ll get personalised news, highlights and exclusives in your inbox every single day.

With the Tokyo 2020 competitors looking to harness the power of social media, raise their public profiles and promote sponsors, we’ll be seeing more behind the scenes than ever before on the likes of TikTok and Instagram Stories – all accessible at the touch of a follow button. And for users who want to get even closer to their Olympic heroes, there’s the opportunity to compete against real athletes in live video games and buy tickets to exclusive virtual events, which look set to elevate the Olympic experience far beyond anything we’ve seen before.

Chain reaction

One of the most exciting things to look out for, will be reactive content. What is about to grab public attention? What TikTok trends will emerge? What will spark millions of memes and how will big businesses respond?

After Denmark footballer Christian Eriksen’s collapse in the opening game of the Euros, The British Heart Foundation was able get a TV advert to air ahead of his team’s next game just six days later, leading to national PR coverage around CPR awareness and a 2000% increase in visits to their website.

Then when England made the final, we saw a golden an opportunity for brands to get creative and ride the national wave of excitement. One of the best came from the Ikea UK social – an asset that could easily be an advert for a product, until you realise the header reads KØMMÖNENGLAND.

Our favourite, though, had to be Royal Mail. A football parcelled up with two first class stamps and addressed to ‘HOME’, seamlessly followed up with a simple one-letter amend to the address, which now reads ‘ROME’.

Before Euros 2020 Final
After Euros 2020 Final

With all eyes now on the ever-changing situation in Tokyo, brands will be wanting to avoid (or at the very least plan for) any Coca-Cola/Cristiano Ronaldo moments. If they want to respond to Olympic action and public reaction effectively, they will find themselves walking a tightrope that requires speed, creativity and – above all else – great care.

Will sponsors get their money’s worth from Tokyo 2020?

The pre-Olympic campaign has done all it can for now. With growing concern around the safety of the event, whether the Stronger Together infrastructure can make up for the lack of spectators and face to face experiences is something the IOC and their sponsors will be waiting anxiously to see.

Top corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Airbnb and Bridgestone invest millions, knowing they will see an uplift in all metrics and colleague morale for at least 6-8 weeks after the closing ceremony. Tokyo 2020 will be testing their confidence.

At the 11th hour, Toyota pulled all Olympic-related TV ads in Japan, though this is widely thought to be down to the growing opposition in an understandably nervous country. With just two days to go, the head of the World Health Organization, said the Tokyo 2020 Olympics should go ahead and demonstrate what can be achieved with the right plan and sufficient measures, but warned that globally, by the time the games are over, more than 100,000 more lives will be lost to COVID-19.

Positive cases are rising within the Olympic bubble and Toshiro Muto, head of the organisation committee, said he could not rule out a complete cancellation. With so much uncertainty still swirling, if and how the first ever Olympics to be postponed will make it over the finish line remains to be seen. One of the only things we know for sure, is that the world is watching.

Related blog: How can Social Media best be used in a global crisis

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