After a marathon negotiation with the Nagano Olympic Committee to gain approval of our co-branded programme, I was beginning to wonder if they might be correct. A large part of our budgeted revenue for the project was tied to the successful sale of Coca-Cola Olympic Pins. If the naysayers were right, not only would we not reach out targets, we would have egg all over our faces. The road to Nagano was getting narrower and more isolated with each day.
As the head of Olympic merchandising for our Coca-Cola team, Scott Pitts conducted a research to determine whether we could successfully sell co-branded pins in Japan. To get an accurate assessment, Scott pulled together focus groups in the US and Japan and asked each whether the Japanese would want to buy and trade Coca-Cola Olympic pins. The focus groups relayed that there could be a possibility if the designs were right and we could appeal to enough Japanese to build sufficient momentum. Still, the naysayers continued. Many of the teams from Coca-Cola, Japan, did not believe we should build a pin trading centre and that the resources should go to other local market initiatives. If we chose not to build the pin trading centre, we would be breaking tradition dating back to 1988 and possibly missing a big opportunity to connect thousands of new potential consumers with the brand in a unique and special way. And while not building the centre would have been the easy way out, we believed deep down it was important for us to do so.
With our minds made up, our next job was to find an event retailer who would believe in the opportunity enough to assume the inventory risk, pay for additional staff and cover all their additional expenses associated with selling the pins during the period the centre was open. We knew that W C Bradley, based in Columbus, GA, had had a profitable event merchandising programme supporting the Atlanta Olympic Torch Relay. Would they be interested in being our partners again for a project on the other side of the globe? If they agreed, not only would they take the risk, they would be required to pay Coca-Cola a royalty on the sale of every pin and pin accessory that they sold. Surprisingly, it did not take too much convincing to get the team from Columbus signed up. Afterwards, I started thinking about these southern gentlemen in the middle of central Japan and cracked a smile. Watching them interact with the Japanese would be entertaining if nothing else. We collectively decided the best way to begin to build momentum as suggested by our research was to open the pin trading centre early. The Japanese would learn the location of the pin trading centre and become familiar with the concept of trading prior to the Games time.
After getting W C Bradley signed, we immediately ran into a roadblock. As per our agreement with the Nagano Olympic Committee, we had to use the Japanese pin manufacturer, which had acquired the licensing rights to sell Nagano Olympic branded pins. Instead of one company that could be responsive to our requirement to create more than one hundred different designs of pins, the Japanese licensee turned out to be a consortium of small companies based throughout Japan. There was no way we were going to be able to meet our objectives if we had to deal with dozens of companies scattered all over the country! Fortunately, the agreement between Coca-Cola and the Nagano Olympic Committee allowed us to choose an alternative supplier if the Nagano licensee was not able to meet our delivery schedule.
Once we confirmed this with the Nagano Olympic Committee and got their approval to switch companies, we immediately went to Aminco, which had supplied pins for Coca-Cola in the previous Olympic Games. Not only did Aminco know how to deliver hundreds of quality designed pins on time, they could execute a programme at world-class pricing. Aminco was indeed our ace in the hole.
Scott shared our pin research with the team at Aminco and they immediately began designing concepts. It was beautiful. By this time, it was April 1997 and we were about to be dealt another major setback to our fledgling programme.
Challenges and thoughts
With all the challenges we had been facing, we did not see that our “get it done” attitude had put a tremendous cultural strain on our Event Merchandising team member based in Japan. Miho (not her real name) was a young professional woman born of Japanese parents and educated in the States. She grew up speaking both Japanese and English. Bright and energetic, Miho desired to help us to be successful. However, I could tell from the outset that this was going to be difficult for her. She was struggling to fit in within the male dominated Coca-Cola Japanese team, which openly shared that they did not wish for us to open a pin trading centre in Nagano. On the other side, Miho had to answer to Scott and me who were asking her to move forward with the project. This would have been difficult under any circumstance; however, being young and female in a Japanese society made this task insurmountable. I appreciated the pressure Miho was under and was not shocked when she told us she was leaving the team. Still, Scott and I felt like we had the wind knocked out of us. It seemed we were facing a project threatening obstacle every two weeks. We had weathered each up until now. This time was different. The success of our programme would lie in how we responded to this latest setback.