Boosting Place Image: Reflecting on the Asian Games Bidding through the Lens of the Beijing Olympics Experience

2010-12-14

  The public consultation on the potential bid of Asian Games 2023 was just closed on December 1st, 2010. The Home Affairs Bureau will collate the public views and present the report to the Legislative Council (LegCo). The support of the LegCo Finance Committee will possibly lead to a formalization of the bid documents in time for submission to the Olympic Council of Asia on February 15th, 2011. The Asian Games Bid Team of the Home Affairs Bureau lists three major categories of immediate benefits for hosting the Games, including the promotion of sports development, enhancement of social cohesion and stimulation of economic activities. For longer term benefits, the Bureau mentioned in the consultation paper that, because of the hosting this mega sports event, Hong Kong will be positioned as “a major destination for international sports events” with an augmentation of “international awareness and recognition of Hong Kong as a global financial centre and the Asia’s World City, a unique one”. The new image will subsequently “boost inbound-tourism and related industries” in the future. It is an inevitable expectation for countries or cities that host a mega sport media spectacle to believe that their image and income can be improved thereafter. At least those were some of the intentions behind the Beijing Olympics.

Branding Efforts
  The Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) stated their purposes when the Olympics bid was successful, saying that “... bidding for the Olympic Games is a competition without losers, as no competition can compare with the Olympic bid as an opportunity for a city, even for the whole country, to display and assert itself before the world... [it] provides a good opportunity of showing the current state of economic, cultural, social and political development in China in a comprehensive way” (COC 2004). China has mentioned the pragmatic reasons for hosting the event: “it was not only a glory for Beijing but also a significant achievement for the entire nation, as being the host to the Olympic Games would undoubtedly bring new business and opportunities within Beijing and throughout China” (COC 2004). As place branding scholar Keith Dinnie notes, a nation could create an identity by standing up and visibly sharing the convictions held by the world (Dinnie 2008). China therefore attempted to embrace the Olympic brand, an essence favorably shared by the world, to create a more likeable China brand for the world. The COC has stated that “as one of the most influential countries in the world today, China is willing to do its best to promote the Olympic Movement. It is the aspiration of both Beijing residents and the Chinese people to share the Olympic spirit, take part in Olympic affairs and host the Olympic Games” (Chinese Olympic Committee 2010). China’s total budget for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games was over US$40 billion, more than nine times as large as Salt Lake City’s and Sydney’s in 2000, six times the spending for Athens, Greece, in 2004, and 40 times what Los Angeles spent in 1984. But how much did this US$40 billion branding effort help to change the image of China?

  In order to answer the question, I conducted two surveys in 2005 and 2009, before and after the Olympics, to compare Hong Kong residents’ views towards the image of China. Bench marking the well-researched Olympic image and employing the branding method, I deconstructed the China image into three categories of fifteen attributes: 1. The Functional Level on Sports Spirit (Fair Competition, Dynamism, Participation, Being the Best, and Determination); 2. The Emotional Level on Celebration of Community (Peace, Equality, Multiculturism, Harmony, and Human Rights); and 3. The Self Expressive Level on Human Values (Friendship, Aspiration, Integrity, Self Improvement, and Honor). The same set of questionnaire with 22 questions containing over 40 variables related to these attributes was used in both surveys to gauge the changes in respondents’ perceptions towards China with respect to the three sets of attributes of the Olympics. In 2005, the Telephone Survey Research Laboratory of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong telephoned a random sample of the population of Hong Kong, consisting of Cantonese or Mandarin speaking local residents aged 18 or above. Trained interviewers interviewed the random sample using the Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing system (CATI) from April 15 to 26, 2005, 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. A total of 7,600 numbers were called and among them, 1,011 respondents finished the interview. The response rate is 53.9% with a marginal error of +/- 3.08%. In the second survey in 2009, the trained interviewers from the Telephone Survey Research Laboratory of the Center for Communication Research in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong called a total of 11,752 numbers from April 8 to 21, 6:30 to 10:30pm. The center successfully finished interviewing 1,034 respondents. The response rate is 61.2% with a marginal error of +/- 3.05%. Both samples have characteristics resembling the general population.

  Results show that among the fifteen attributes, the China image has five that were higher than the Olympic spirit in 2005 (Be the Best 12.4%, Determination 17.6%, Harmony 2.1%, Human Rights 6.4%, and Honors 7.1%). The number dropped to three (Be the Best 26.5%, Determination 18.9% and Human Rights 1.8%) in 2009. When compared to the Olympics, only one attribute of the China image had statistically improved with significance during the years and it is Be the Best (+113.7%). All other attributes had either stayed relatively stagnant (Determination +7.39%, Dynamism +15.52%, Multiculturism +16.94%, and Self Improvement +37.5% - none has statistical differences) or dropped to a lower point than before.

  This certainly should be a disappointing finding for both the researchers and the organizers of the Beijing Olympics. We expect a lot more in the image revamping power from the well-intended, carefully planned and expended-monetary-supported mega sports spectacle. After all, Hong Kong was united as a passionate and cohering city to cheer for our local and mainland teams, not to mention for the Equestrian Games during the Olympic period. However, in less than eight months thereafter, the perception towards China as a whole has dropped in comparison to the image we perceived before the Olympics. Only one out of fifteen attributes, Be the Best in Sports, becomes a predominant feature of China that Hong Kong residents recognized as a successful and long lasting legacy created in the Beijing Olympics. This grim picture shows that place branding is not easy.

How does it work?
  Some place branding scholars believe that a branding process has the power to beautify a nation from top down, that “branding theory and practice have a direct and powerful bearing on urban planners” in revamping a city, as postulated by Gelder and Roberts (Van Gelder & Roberts 2007). They define city branding as “deliberately creating, developing and demonstrating (the value of) the brand through appropriate ‘on-brand’ actions, which consist of investments, physical and economic plans, attraction programs, events, and communications”. Others think that the branding force should come from the grassroots and a nation brand is synonymous with the nation’s reputation supported by public opinions. Simon Anholt thinks that commercial branding efforts cannot elevate or sustain the image of an ill-developed country:

  Places can only change their images by changing the way they behave. Places can’t construct or manipulate their images with advertising or PR, slogans or logos – and although some governments spend large amounts of money trying to do just that, there is absolutely no proof that it works (Anholt 2010).

  It is important to recognize that while marketers developed the branding process as an input, it is up to the consumers to form an impression towards the brand, which can be an output different from the intended plan. Some nations require a long-term strategy when building their nation-brand rather than “using a quick fix short-term advertising campaign whose effects may be ephemeral” (de Chernatony 2008, p. 15). However, when the nation is ready and the campaign aligns well with the public perception, the branding efforts will take off. In the case of Australia, the Sydney branding committee reported that when building the Olympic brand, Sydney was also branded. Surveys conducted after the Sydney 2000 Games showed that 89% of corporate guests thought that the Games had a positive impact on the image of Australia and 96% of Olympic spectators believed that the Games would have a positive impact on the image of Australia. The critical difference between Sydney and China lies with their actual current conditions. This study shows that China is not ready to be thoroughfully rebranded except Be the Best in sports. China deserves the recognition because China’s sports have come a long way. In the past eight Olympics, China has gradually been moving up in the Gold and/or total medal list (1984 Los Angeles Olympics with 32 medals and ranked 4th, 1988 Seoul Olympics with 28 medals and ranked 11th, 1992 Barcelona Olympics with 54 medals and ranked 4th, 1996 Atlanta Olympics with 50 medals and ranked 4th, 2000 Sydney with 59 medals and ranked 3rd, 2004 Athens Olympics with 63 medals and ranked 2nd, and finally at 2008 Beijing Olympics at 1st place with 51 Gold medals). Most Hong Kong newspapers hailed the number one status of China on the Gold Medal list with headlines like “On the Beijing Olympic Gold Medal list, China would Certainly be the First” (Metropolis Daily 2008); A Great Gold Medal Kingdom (Sing Tao Daily 2008); China’s Golden Path (Apple Daily 2008). As a real champion on the score sheet, China is justified to share with the Olympic image in sports spirit and the branding effort for this part was a complete one.

  If this is what Hong Kong wants to achieve in this round of bidding for the Asian Games, that is, to present a better sports image to the world, she has to be really the best to receive that deserved accolade. Because branding a place is truly not that easy when the substance is not there, as the data has sufficiently presented here. Annisa Lai Lee Assistant Professor Coordinator of MSSc. Advertising Programme School of Journalism and Communication The Chinese University of Hong Kong

■Annisa Lai Lee
Assistant Professor
Coordinator of MSSc. Advertising Programme
School of Journalism and Communication
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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