Plans Up in Flames: How one area of Tokyo offers a snapshot of ways in which the ban on spectators is affecting sponsors

By Chris Smith
The Olympic cauldron at Yume no Ohashi Bridge will be lit after the opening ceremony. getty images

For the duration of the Tokyo Games, the Olympic flame will burn atop a hydrogen-fueled cauldron on the Yume no Ohashi Bridge, a pedestrian walkway on Tokyo Bay that connects the areas of Odaiba and Ariake. The cauldron’s placement in the Waterfront City area was chosen specifically to put the flame amid the bustling foot traffic on a promenade that’s currently covered in Tokyo 2020 banners and purple-and-white flower arrangements.

 

And one day before the opening ceremony, it was an absolute ghost town.

The dearth of foot traffic could be expected. Foreign spectators were barred from attending the Games in March, and earlier this month that ban was extended to also include the Japanese citizenry. But the vast emptiness remains a startling sight, and it drives home the full impact felt by sponsors that had deployed millions of dollars across yearslong plans to engage with the oceans of fans who aren’t here.

Indeed, there is perhaps no better illustration of how the spectator ban has hit Olympic sponsors than Tokyo’s bayfront area, which was supposed to be a critical touchpoint. The space is home to competition venues for new and youth-focused disciplines, including skateboarding, sport climbing, freestyle BMX and 3-on-3 basketball, as well as premier Olympic events like gymnastics, tennis and beach volleyball. An “urban festival” was planned to allow spectators an opportunity to view practices, see DJ performances and even have hands-on sports experiences at some of those competition venues.

Nestled at one end of the promenade is the Tokyo 2020 Fan Park, a hub for sponsor activation. With no pandemic it might have featured an even more robust roster of brand names; those that remain include Coca-Cola, with a field of branded picnic tables; the Visa megastore; and houses from Omega and Procter & Gamble.

In 2019, Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi told Reuters that the Waterfront City would play a key role in building toward the future of the Games: “We want to make sure the Olympic program remains relevant. We have to bring those sports to youth, as we cannot expect that they come naturally to the offer that we have.”

Thanks to COVID countermeasures, that marketer’s dream has been dashed. The urban festival has been canceled, and earlier this month Tokyo organizers asked citizens to “refrain from visiting” the cauldron. Today, the Fan Park resembles a high-security zone, surrounded by chain-link fencing and accessible only to staffers and invited guests. Athlete training is now closed to the public; ahead of the Games, basketball players practiced to blaring hip hop with only Tokyo 2020 volunteers looking on.

Even with activations scaled back at the Games, Coca-Cola is still a common sight.Chris Smith

Some of the IOC’s partners have operational plans that remain intact. Omega, a TOP sponsor and the official timekeeper of the Games, has 400 tons of equipment, 530 timekeepers and another 900 volunteers in Tokyo, and its day-to-day role remains unchanged. “We were ready last year, we just took everything and postponed by one year,” said Alain Zobrist, Omega’s CEO of timing. The company would not comment on any financial matters related to its Olympic involvement.

Some sponsors have expanded their role. According to Olympic marketing consultant Michael Payne, Alibaba’s cloud computing will be used for nearly one-third of the Olympic broadcast, up from a planned 1% before last year’s postponement.

But it’s hard to ignore the lost opportunities. Omega’s presence at the Fan Park is a wood-paneled building that houses a veritable museum of historic time-keeping devices and the cutting-edge technology it uses today. Now, rather than being used to welcome a parade of fans, the space will primarily serve to host members of the media and post-competition interviews for the brand’s Olympians, five of whom are Americans, including medal hopefuls in swimmer Caeleb Dressel and sprinter Noah Lyles.

Other sponsor programs have been similarly curtailed. The interior of the Panasonic Center showroom, a 10-minute walk from the cauldron and a stone’s throw from the Main Press Center, is a popular interactive museum but was redesigned for the Games to include an exhibit on Japanese culture and new displays with a focus on sports added to this year’s program for Tokyo. Access to the building now requires a reservation made in advance.

There’s an even smaller presence from Tokyo’s domestic sponsors. In fact, they’re just about nonexistent around the Olympic footprint. “That’s a very peculiar, unique situation in Japan and Japanese culture,” said Payne. “They were all planning massive programs, as you would expect, and then when the virus finally kicked in, for them it was inappropriate to be activating against that cultural backdrop.”

It was for similar reasons that Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda said he would not attend the opening ceremony last Friday. Toyota also made the decision months ago to not pursue a linear TV ad campaign in Japan; according to a source with knowledge of the brand’s strategy, Toyota’s near-50% market share in the country made it less of a priority. The Japanese automaker did, however, lose out on activation plans around the now deemphasized torch relay.

With so little to do on the ground in Tokyo, the IOC’s global partners have instead turned their attention to engaging with fans who are, well, around the globe. In fact, top Olympic marketing executives from Panasonic and Toyota North America were not even in Tokyo for the start of the Games, choosing instead to stay back in the United States.

“We were going to attend at one moment, but for me to be here with my team just makes more sense from an operational perspective, to be able to get what we need done here,” said Dedra DeLilli, Toyota North America group manager of sponsorship strategy, integration and auto shows. “That was a tough decision, but I’ll make the best of it.”

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