Branding the Vancouver Olympics – learning from Beijing

Vancouver faces far fewer challenges as host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, but Canada’s biggest coastal city still has much to learn from the Beijing Games, according to a professor of marketing at the Sprott School of Business.

The Beijing Olympics were marked by human rights violations, denied visas, phony firework shows and a lip-synching child performer — and that was just the opening ceremonies.

“This was China’s opportunity to open up to the rest of the world,” says Louise Heslop, who led first-of-its kind research into the inter-relationship between the Olympics brand and its host country. “The promise of the Olympics making huge progress [in Beijing] didn’t happen.”

Though some nations aim to improve their image through hosting the Games, Heslop says it seems apparent that China’s leaders merely wanted to promote patriotism and “reinforce the hold of the communist government.”

“They really didn’t want people to come . . . China’s government was interested in controlling the experience,” she says.

Researchers studied the views of people in the U.S., Canada and China (outside Beijing) before, during and after the event. They also interviewed tourists to learn more about Olympic venues as travel destinations.

Though China was extremely successful from an athletics standpoint — winning the most gold medals with 51 and 100 medals altogether — impressions of the country actually declined after the games.

The exception was in Canada, where views were already quite low to begin with and improved slightly, Heslop says. According to the research paper entitled China and the Olympic Games: American and Canadian Views in a Destination Context, Canadians have a higher opinion of the Chinese people despite having more negative views of the country in terms of peacefulness, rights and freedoms, quality of life and pollution.

“Canadians appear less willing to engage with China as a destination, apparently based on more negative views of issues related to politics and environmental management,” reads the study conducted by Heslop and fellow researchers Norm O’Reilly, director of the school of sports administration at Laurentian University, and John Nadeau, professor of marketing at Nipissing University.

“This study reinforces the need to consider Canadians and Americans as distinct sets of consumers when it comes to marketing of China as a destination and marketing of the Olympic Games.”

Even more interesting, it was also a bittersweet victory for the Chinese. The Olympics failed to deliver on promises of new freedoms and improved human rights, leading researchers to discover general dissatisfaction across the country.

Views of the Chinese about themselves and their country in areas such as friendliness, helpfulness, trustworthiness and stability of economy all decreased.

When it comes to the Vancouver Olympics, researchers will study this phenomenon of “post-event letdown” in more detail.

“How do you measure [the success of the Games] without getting the post-event letdown?” asks Heslop.

“Certain psychological phenomena may make mega-event success measurement really tricky.”

Vancouver is already a city that is thought of in favourable terms, says Helsop, examing it will likely be a much more straight-forward study with less to gain and less to lose from the Olympics.

“Canada is seen in very positive light,” she says.

“Everybody loves Canada.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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