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Hudson’s Bay is among a group of Premier National Partners of each domestic Olympic committee.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It is an iconic moment that reaches television viewers from coast to coast every two years: hundreds of Canadian athletes marching into a stadium during an Olympic Games opening ceremony, in uniforms provided by and sporting the logo of Hudson’s Bay Company.

But with less than one week before the start of the Tokyo Games, not even the Canadian Olympic Committee could say last Friday how many of the country’s athletes will be participating in an opening ceremony that, like the rest of the Summer Games, has been thrown into disarray by COVID-19: It might be two, it might be 20. It will certainly not be hundreds.

Olympic Games are traditionally safe and desirable spaces for marketers, massive platforms that enable them to promote products and services to national or global audiences. And, after more than 16 months of restrictions, many experts believe consumers are primed for the sort of unifying spectacle that the Games usually offer. But as Tokyo gets set to light the flame next Friday, official Olympics sponsors face an especially fraught environment, with large swaths of the globe still paralyzed by the pandemic and enormous uncertainty over how receptive people will be to traditionally upbeat marketing messages that tap into nationalistic sentiments.

“It is absolutely a high-wire act,” said Norm O’Reilly, director of the International Institute for Sport Business and Leadership at Guelph University’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics.

Those undertaking the potentially riskiest act, O’Reilly said, are 15 global marketers, members of The Olympic Partners program that together currently spend about $1-billion annually on their Olympic-related marketing activities. The group, which includes Coca-Cola, AirBNB, Procter & Gamble, and VISA, must tailor their messages to the opportunities – and sensitivities – of each country in which they operate, and how it is currently being affected by the pandemic.

Below that tier are Premier National Partners of each domestic Olympic committee, a group that in Canada comprises RBC, Bell, Hudson’s Bay, and Canadian Tire Corporation. (The COC has more than two dozen official partners, supporters, and suppliers of various ranks; The Globe and Mail is an official media partner.) The Premier National Partners will need to walk a fine line of celebrating their involvement in the Games without seeming tone-deaf to the current landscape.

That could be especially challenging if someone makes an on-air comment about spiralling COVID-19 cases in Japan, or overflowing intensive-care units in Tokyo hospitals.

“When you put your brand in those situations, that’s the risk,” noted Howard Thomas, a Toronto-based marketer who has overseen multiple Olympic campaigns. And there are other risks that cannot be controlled: “All you need is one, two, three of our top athletes getting a positive test and they can’t run, they can’t jump, everybody’s going to say, ‘This is crazy, why are we doing this?’ ” he said.

The benefits of being an Olympic sponsor have already been undercut significantly by the pandemic. As part of their sponsorship privileges, official supporters are usually granted exclusive opportunities to stage elaborate marketing activities on site, such as Hockey House at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, a massive tent where Molson Coors promoted its Canadian beer brand.

“The hosting and hospitality [element] is enormous,” Thomas said. “The people that you host are C-level executives. You get their undivided attention, and they see the majesty of your brand because of those local assets [such as Hockey House].”

This year, because of the ban on foreigners, none of those activities will be taking place.

A number of COC sponsors who spoke to The Globe noted their advertising will focus on their support of Canadian athletes and the challenges they faced, especially since the pandemic lockdowns began in March, 2020.

RBC is using the Games to launch a new marketing platform it is calling Ideas Happen Here, which it hopes will help brand the bank as being driven by ideas and innovation. It kicked off the campaign with a video of some of the eight athletes who have been helped on their journey to Tokyo by RBC Training Ground, the bank’s program designed to discover and nurture athletic potential among Canadians.

Mary DePaoli, RBC’s chief marketing officer, acknowledged the pandemic presents a challenge for campaigns. “We are hopeful that this is a moment that athletes and countries can celebrate in a way that is still respectful of what is happening in the world. So it will be a balance between striking a tone that is somewhat optimistic, but also is mindful of the fact that there is still great suffering happening in the world – and there will be for some time to come, including potentially as we get into the Winter Games.”

Still, she noted, “I think that two-week period could give us the ability to unite this country in a way that transcends what is happening from a health or even a political standpoint. I think many Canadians will be looking forward to seeing all that is good about Canada’s athletes, and how they are representing us on the world stage.”

HBC is hoping to strike a similar tone. “Our strategy this year really moved away from the big moment itself, to focus on more of the stories of the athletes themselves,” said Allison Litzinger, vice-president of brand for the retailer. “We really see it as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Canada’s athletes, and celebrating their resilience and their perseverance. We feel it really represents that of the entire nation, given the challenges we’ve all had to face this year. So we really are focused on bringing to life their stories and their achievements, and moving away from more of that big moment in the event.”

Some seem to have barely altered their plans for the pandemic. Cheerios cereal, whose parent company General Mills is an official supporter of the COC, has been running ads on TV since May focused on its cheer-card campaign, which it has operated over the past several Olympic Games. The campaign allows fans to cut out cards from boxes of the cereal and send them to their favourite athletes, courtesy of Canada Post. The company is promoting the idea that the cards could be even more meaningful this year because Canadian athletes will be competing in stadiums without any fans present, and during times of the day that most of their supporters back home would be sleeping.

But the TV ads focus only on the time difference – declaring in on-screen text, “While we sleep, Team Canada competes” – and carry no sense of a Games taking place during a pandemic. In one version, sprinter Andre De Grasse is in a tunnel beneath a stadium, where he reads a card and then, smiling, hands it back to an unmasked official, before walking past a number of other unmasked individuals and heading out for his race, to the rising cheers of a crowd. De Grasse and his fellow athletes will not be performing in front of cheering crowds, because of the ban on spectators. Even before the ban was put in place, cheering itself was barred.

Jeevan Grewal, the marketing communications manager of cereal at General Mills, said he believes the pandemic has made Canadians ready to celebrate. “There’s so much bottled-up anticipation, there’s so much bottled-up excitement for Canadians to rally behind something, for the first time in a long time,” he said. “This is finally that moment for everyone to let their pride shine.”

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