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Nagano Struggles For Recognition Marketing Troubles Hinder 1998 Winter Olympics

A tiny, inconspicuous store selling licensed Olympic goods is about the only clue in bustling downtown Nagano that the Winter Games are coming.

Outside Nagano, the marketing has been almost non-existent.

Sports fans who lamented the over-commercialization of the Atlanta Olympics last year can relax this time. In Nagano, the problem is just the opposite - the games aren’t getting hyped enough.

“There is a lot that needs to be done here,” IOC marketing director Michael Payne said.

Payne, speaking earlier this week by telephone from his office in Lausanne, Switzerland, said Nagano organizers will be brought in for workshops in the United States next month to learn more about aggressive promotion programs and meet with American corporate sponsors.

He said the IOC is also reviewing with the Nagano committee ways to step up public relations and promotion for the games, which are to open in Nagano in less than nine months.

Nagano organizers got a jolting wake-up call from the IOC when President Juan Antonio Samaranch - normally the picture of diplomacy - said recently that they were not selling the games vigorously enough.

“If you go to Tokyo now,” he said, “you get the feeling that the Nagano Games are not so important.”

Nagano’s marketing problem stems from the fact that the organizers are local bureaucrats more intent on safely seeing the games through than on exploiting them as a business. Marketing experts aren’t key players in Nagano.

That was apparent at a supposed media gala in February to mark the one-year countdown toward the games. The sloppily publicized Tokyo event was a dismal draw, despite the attendance of two popular sumo wrestlers, who are also to be the stars of the opening ceremony.

The Japanese media, extremely influential trend-setters, have also shown little enthusiasm for the games so far.

Some difficulties aren’t Nagano’s fault.

It is hard to get people excited about skiing and skating with an entire summer still ahead. And the Winter Games have never generated the interest of the Summer Games.

The organizers also have had their successes.

Living up to the Japanese stereotype of super-efficiency, Nagano has met its corporate sponsorship goals. Ticket sales are going well, a commendable feat given the lagging Japanese economy.

The marketing revenue projected for the Nagano games - including TV broadcasting fees, corporate sponsorship, licensing and ticket sales - totals about $895 million, exceeding the last Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, which generally were acclaimed as the benchmark for future Winter Games.

Atlanta marketing brought in a whopping $1.7 billion.

Although the marketing appeal of Olympic athletes has yet to reach the level of a Tiger Woods or a Ken Griffey, Jr., figure skating and track stars have emerged as celebrities with endorsement power in the United States, largely because of the Olympics.

But Nagano organizers don’t have what it takes to emulate the business acumen of their American counterparts, said Hiroshi Tsugeno, director of the Olympic division at Dentsu Inc., Japan’s top advertising firm.

“American entrepreneurship is admirable. They see it as a business and they get the job done,” he said. “In America, making profits is viewed as correct.”

Payne and others said corporate advertising by the games’ sponsors - Toyota Motor Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., among others - will probably intensify later in the year. That likely will boost interest.

Still, just reminding people the games are coming is no longer enough to perk interest, said Toshiaki Izeki, professor of marketing at Keio University.

Izeki said the Nagano organizers haven’t come up with a solid concept to make the games dramatic and compelling.

The 1964 Tokyo Summer Games managed to mobilize the support of the public, who saw the Olympics as a chance to show the world that Japan had risen from the ashes of World War II a modern, cosmopolitan nation.

Izeki said getting the local community to experiment with grass-roots democracy in planning the games - a relatively fresh idea for Japan’s conformist, bureaucrat-led society - might have done the trick.

Ken Saito, account director at the Tokyo office of U.S. ad giant, Ogilvy and Mather, said the failures of Nagano marketing reflect a wider weakness of Japanese advertising, which tends toward the eye-catching, rather than strong narrative messages built on a long-term strategy.

“Many Japanese don’t see sports as entertainment,” he said. “They aren’t skilled at putting on a show.”