Coke Ain't It With Beijing's Ongoing Tibet Flap

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 4/01/2008 01:28:00 AM
Instead of dealing with the Pepsi Challenge, Coca-Cola is dealing with the Ultimate Corporate Social Responsibility Challenge as Tibet activists demand that major Olympic sponsors petition the Chinese government to reopen Tibet. This is an especially sensitive time for the PRC with the ongoing torch relay set to ignite protests wherever the torch goes. Like the Pied Piper, the torch has lots of baggage that goes with it. Talk about a political risk scenario for corporate sponsors of the Games. What will happen to the image of these sponsors if a hard crackdown occurs in Tibet in the run-up to the Games? Safe to say that they might think twice about saying Tibet, Darfur, etc. are beyond their control as they do below. It will be particularly interesting to see what happens as the torch passes through Tibet. I won't be surprised if activists redouble their efforts then. From BusinessWeek:

Coke, along with Chinese computer company Lenovo and South Korean electronics giant Samsung, has spent millions of dollars (the companies won't disclose the exact amounts) to sponsor the relay. Lenovo designed the torch and provided free laptops to Olympic officials. Samsung plans to pass out Samsung flags in all 134 cities along the route. Coke nominated 100 environmental activists to serve as torchbearers.

However their marketing strategies took shape before the latest violence in Tibet, where dozens of people have died since anti-Chinese protests started on Mar. 14. So instead of winning uncritical publicity, corporate sponsors have come under attack. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Tuesday, Mar. 25 urging Coke, Lenovo, and Samsung to pressure Beijing to reopen Tibet and calling for the torch relay to avoid the region unless the Chinese government agrees to an independent investigation into the recent unrest. Tibetan activists are also planning protests in London, Paris, San Francisco, Mumbai, and other cities when the Olympic torch relay passes through and are also calling for the corporate sponsors to withdraw…

When it comes to corporate targets, the activists are focusing their pressure on Coke because they say they hold the Atlanta-based soft drink company to higher standards. A group of 153 Tibet organizations sent a letter to Coke Chairman and Chief Executive Officer E. Neville Isdell demanding that the company withdraw its sponsorship of the relay and lobby the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cancel the leg of the relay passing through Tibet and via Mt. Everest. "You cannot, as a responsible American company, leave American values at the border in exchange for access to a lucrative market," says Jacob Colker, campaign manager for International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington (D.C.)-based organization that works to promote human rights and democratic freedoms in Tibet. "It's not acceptable, and it's not appropriate. They need to really consider this sponsorship of the torch relay, especially if it continues to go through Tibet."

So far, Coke and the other sponsors have taken the position that the problem in Tibet is an issue to be resolved by the government and is outside their responsibilities as corporate sponsors. In an interview in Beijing, Coke spokesperson Christina Lau would not comment when asked by BusinessWeek about Tibet and the torch relay.

However in a statement issued by the company last week, Coke spokesperson Kerry Kerr said: "While it would be an inappropriate role for sponsors to comment on the political situation of individual nations, as the longest-standing sponsor of the Olympic movement, we firmly believe that the Olympics are a force for good. We remain committed to supporting the torch relay, which provides a unique opportunity to share the Olympic values of unity, pride, and inspiration with people all over the world."

The other sponsors say they have no plans to dial down their marketing for the Beijing Olympics in response to the outcry over Tibet. "As a private organization, Samsung is not in a position to influence politics," says Kwon Gye Hyun, vice-president and head of global sports marketing at Samsung Electronics. Bob Page, manager for Lenovo's Worldwide Olympic Games Project, agrees that Lenovo's role is not to advise governments on policy. The situation "needs to be resolved at a regional level by governments," he says. "It's not the role of an Olympic sponsor to advise any government on political policy."