Coca-Cola Managing Tokyo 2020 'Roller Coaster'

(ATR) The TOP sponsor is adapting its Olympic business model and activation strategies like never before.

(ATR) Coca-Cola is adapting its Olympic business model and activation strategies like never before.

Navigating the daily uncertainties and cultivating new relationships during a pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for the worldwide Olympic Sponsor and International Olympic Committee partner since 1928.

Coca-Cola general manager and vice-president for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games James Williams stresses the necessity for the Atlanta-based soft drink giant to "test and learn" and frequently "pivot" during these times.

"It has been a massive roller coaster – it has been tough on people and it’s just about learning to evolve," Williams told media during a conference call on Tuesday.

"Obviously, there were big impacts for us from a postponement point of view – we were just two days away from the Torch Relay leaving," he says, of the Coca-Cola-sponsored Olympic Torch Relay.

"I had a team of 70 or so people who were getting on a coach to go and start the relay and then everything changed, so yes there was a knock-on impact for the way we’ve done the relay now.

"We’re off and running with the relay, in probably a slightly different way than we would have done last year. We’ve adapted and it will make us look very differently at how we will execute the Games."

With 73 days until the Tokyo Games open, Williams and his staff at Coca-Cola believe they are prepared to handle new surprises down the homestretch.

"It’s that understanding that you’re constantly problem solving and everything is changing," Williams said. "I can tell you that where we are now and when we get to the Games in two-and-a-half months, I’m sure things will be different because everything changes every day."

Williams said that Coca-Cola is collaborating and sharing ideas with fellow worldwide TOP sponsors more than for previous Games as the corporations all cope with the global health crisis.

"More so than ever in the current environment, we have calls with all of the other sponsors as we’re going through a very new phase with the postponement and the countermeasures," says the British-born, Tokyo-based executive. "It’s about sharing knowledge."

Williams, a 10-year employee of Coca-Cola, has worked for the company across London 2012, Rio 2016, and now Tokyo 2020.

"Within Coca-Cola, we’ve constantly evolved and even revolutionized some of the things in the way we approach the Games."

Williams refers to Coca-Cola’s digitalization of the age-old Olympic pastime of pin trading as a prime example.

"Pin trading is a crazy game that happens during the Games where people from all around the world are trading pins and what we wanted to do here is see how we can evolve that," Williams said. "We live in a digital world and luckily we started this before COVID.

Obviously, in a COVID world pin trading becomes a struggle because you don’t want to be handing things back and forth.

"We started testing and learning, testing and learning, so when we get to the Games, we are reducing the risk of the investment.

"Very quickly we are testing new things – the classic word in this new world is ‘pivoting’ away from one thing to another," he said.

Williams notes that Japan’s abundance of vending machines offering vast and varied beverage selections has also caused Coca-Cola to devise new marketing and legacy strategies around Tokyo, as compared to previous Olympic Games.

"In Japan, we have a much bigger vending machine business much different than other markets – so how do we make sure that we use this to drive the Games forward," Williams asks rhetorically.

"How do we make these different pieces important to us for the future of our business and how do the Games allow us to drive and accelerate that growth in those areas."

Williams continues about the importance for Coca-Cola to create legacies within cities and countries long after organizing committees have been disbanded and Olympic experiences are memories for the citizens.

"One of the reasons that we’ve been successful is that we’ve set legacies and they link to certain parts of the business," said Williams. "The Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are there to drive our business forward."

In regards to Coca-Cola and its Beijing 2022 marketing and activation strategies, Williams wouldn’t reveal details, however he says work is moving forward despite the current difficulties surrounding Tokyo 2020.

"We start about four years out, so there is a team in China and Beijing – they’ve been preparing for a number of years," Williams said. "Obviously they’re now preparing for one that is very close to a Summer Games, which has never been done before and in a COVID time as well."

Written and reported by Brian Pinelli

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