SBJ/September 26 - October 2, 2005/Marketingsponsorship

Octagon’s Passion Drivers research looks for keys to reaching Chinese sports fans

With 1.3 billion consumers, China is an attractive target for any marketer with global aspirations, and Octagon’s Passion Drivers research survey proves again that those looking at exporting sporting goods or services to the world’s most populous nation should consider the cultural differences and tweak their marketing approach accordingly.

Through its interviews of 3,200 sports aficionados in China identifying themselves as “passionate fans,” the Passion Drivers data helps identify some of the intangibles that bond Chinese to sports. The surveys were conducted online by Octagon in five major markets in China last February.

As a country still developing, China has been importing an increasing amount of sports content to fill its exploding media landscape. The English Premier League is popular in China, as 60 percent of adults 25 to 44 years old say they follow the soccer league, and teams such as Manchester United and Chelsea also have a following. However, in soccer and other sports, fans’ affinity is rooted in the game, rather than in team loyalties.

“In mature markets, like the U.S. and U.K., fans focus so much on the team and its legacy, it makes sense for any marketer to focus on team relationships,” said Simon Wardle, vice president of research at Octagon who oversaw the Passion Drivers research. “But one size will not fit all in China from a marketing approach. It is much more about participation and active appreciation of skill and technique of the game, whereas in Europe, team devotion was overwhelmingly the dominant factor attracting fans to the sport.”

The implications for those leveraging a sports sponsorship in China suggest that consumer promotions and marketing communications that celebrate the sport might be more compelling to consumers than programs that are team or celebrity-player focused. Grassroots programs should be more effective than relying on the appeal of high-priced athletes to sell products or services.

Looking at other popular sports in China, basketball, like soccer, is driven more by interest in the game, although hero worship can also be important, as evidenced by Yao Ming’s ascension as a Chinese pop culture icon.

With the NBA’s exposure increasing in China through television and last year’s two preseason games, Wardle thinks the “Yao Ming factor may become less of a motivating factor as to why Chinese love [basketball].’’

In studying the Passion Drivers data, Wardle advised marketers “leveraging a basketball sponsorship to include grassroots skills programs, consumer games and free-throw shooting events. However, the appropriate use of a spokesperson might also be very effective.”

Comparing racket sports in the West to China, where badminton and table tennis are established sports, Wardle advises that a potential sponsor could achieve maximum impact by underwriting elements such as grassroots skills clinics, or a broadcast sponsorship of skills and coaching tips.

Wardle cautioned that the Chinese media landscape is changing rapidly. Consequently, “the evolution of the sports fan, which occurred over decades in the U.K. and U.S., will materialize in only a few years in China.”

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