Alibaba Group CMO talks Olympics, globalisation and innovation

Fresh from launching the Chinese company's ecommerce and tech first Tokyo 2020 Games activations, the marketing chief details his strategy and ambitions

Chris Tung
Chris Tung

Being the CMO for CMOs and showcasing Alibaba’s technology innovations to the world dominate the marketing strategy of its CMO, Chris Tung. And he sees the group’s 12-year partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a key way of achieving both aims.

Speaking to CMO following the launch of Alibaba Group’s first Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games activations internationally, the Chinese ecommerce and technology giant’s global marketing chief said becoming an official Olympics Partner stemmed from a joint vision to enrich people’s lives.

“What we are doing at Alibaba is not just building our own brand and portfolio globally, but platforms to support global brands build out their brands more effectively with digital technology,” Tung said.

This is exactly what Alibaba Group is looking to do through its partnership with the IOC. The 12-year deal kicked off in 2017, gained its first outing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and hits its stride in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

“What we believe as partners is it’s important to leverage Alibaba’s technology to transform the Olympic Games digitally. We want to keep driving innovations, upgrade the games digitally, and find better, cost-effective ways to run the games,” Tung said. “We want host cities to get all those benefits for athletes, as well as for spectators to experience something more relevant and enjoyable during games time.”

It’s for this reason Tung said the work shouldn’t be seen as any regular marketing sponsorship.

“It’s not so critical for us to keep attaching logos with the five rings, and it’s not brand advertising campaign,” he said. “It’s through innovation that we want to be to make a difference to the Olympic Games.”  

The list of innovations include an ‘Olympic brain’ or cloud offering, a clean energy data centre for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, a collaboration with Intel on 3D athlete tracking technology which will be launched at the Tokyo 2020 games, and a range of online interactive events to promote Beijing 2022, such as social media check-ins. Alibaba will also be the ticketing system and services provider for the 2022 Winter Games with a new digital ticketing platform.

The big tech innovation for this year’s Tokyo Games is Alibaba’s collaboration with the Olympic Broadcasting Services on an ‘OBS cloud’ driving live broadcasting of the event. This will take advantage of Alibaba’s cloud and AI solutions and see it delivering 360 8K virtual reality, 3D digital twinning and cloud broadcasting in Tokyo and then Beijing. In Tokyo, Alibaba is also offering an AI tool called ‘Make the beat’, consolidating Olympic videos, photos and messages published across social media platforms, which it will then edit and distribute as video content to different Olympic games venues.

Creative digital

The first cab off the rank in the Tokyo program, however, is a digital art gallery in Nakita Airport. The idea is to bring Japanese culture arts and sports together with cloud technology for an enriched experienced for visitors arriving in the airport in coming months, Tung said.

“The digital art series has been created by local Japanese artists and aims to help travellers truly embrace the experience for one of the world’s big sporting events,” he said. “It’s a great platform for budding local artists to showcase their creativity, passion and express themselves using digital capability.

“Many of these artists have been working on canvas with a dream to showcase work and engage broader groups online, but haven’t had the chance or access to mechanisms to do so. This is not just a gallery in the airport, but also about creating a digital playground for artists. With the help of cloud technology, those artists… can process a large volume of images and video for their work. So these are cloud-enabled works.”

The Nakita Airport campaign launches in March and runs until the end of the year. Tung said it takes its cues from Alibaba’s voice of Olympics launch efforts in 2018 and tagline, ‘To the greatness of small’.

“We do believe our technology is there to help level the playing field for SMBs, and young people who want to realise their business dreams,” Tung said. “We have a clear company mission to make it easy to do business anywhere in the world. This gallery is how we bring that greatness of small and our company ambitions to life in an Olympic occasion.”  

The Olympics will not surprisingly be the critical component of Alibaba’s total brand building efforts this year.

“This is under the corporate brand, and is the most significant campaign this year for us. Under the group building, we have specific brand building efforts for Tmall, Alibaba Cloud and our portfolio plans, and Olympics activation will play a critical part there too for the year,” Tung said.

For example, Alibaba’s Tmall ecommerce marketplace will host a series of Olympic-themed activities during the northern summer with brands to promote an active lifestyle as well as the Olympic spirit. These interactive programs will be in line with what’s happening in Tokyo during games time. Alibaba’s Fliggy travel platform has also created a series of go-to-Japan programs, including a dedicated Olympics cruise, while Yoku, Alibaba’s video site in China, will create a series of Olympic-themed programs and content onsite.

Then there’s the work via Alibaba Cloud to offer OBS Cloud, supporting broadcasters of the Olympic Games in what Tung saw as a more cost-effective and efficient way by processing a lot of video content on the cloud to quickly produce many editions of content.  

Tung pointed out Japan has always been an important market to Alibaba, noting its close cooperation with Japanese merchants across businesses such as Alibaba Kao, TMall and Fliggy.

“Japanese is a very popular destination for Chinese tourists and topped the list this year of destinations for outbound travel,” he commented. “Also rankings from our W11 show Japanese brands are top of the favourite international brands exported to China.”  

The ambition is to engage more than 500 million consumers in China with its Olympics program of work, Tung said.

“Our strategy for the Tokyo Olympic Games is to build affinity for Alibaba worldwide by communicating our innovations via the transformation efforts we undertake for each games event. We are going to work closely with media to showcase what we have done and what our tech can bring to the table,” he added.  

“It’s more about case studies than advertising. So we want to measure not just awareness, but more affinity and trust in our brand and products.”

International clout

As Alibaba becomes a more internationally recognisable and ambitious brand, gaining maturity and might, Tung said his key guiding principle as a CMO is building reach through globalisation efforts.

“We have very good success in Asia already, and lead in ecommerce in Southeast Asia, as well as select European and South American countries. Alibaba Cloud is expanding globally aggressively. Our globalisation is a very strategic part of our job as a marketing team. That’s why activating the Olympic Games in a powerful way is so important.”  

Supporting this is the overarching business model, Tung said. “We have a very successful marketplace model, and we’re already the largest retail platform in the world from a sales standpoint,” he continued.

“The reason why our ecommerce business has been growing so strongly can be attributed to the fact we’re focusing so much on supporting our brand partners globally.”  

Tung said he’s structured his team to have a sharp partner focus and adopted a vertical way of working.

“We have a category focus as a team to be able to talk to brands in different domains with more expertise and in a more efficient way to understand what they want and leverage our platform to support their marketing work. People call me the CMO for CMOs, as we’re working to find ways to address their needs,” he said.  

As a case in point, Tung noted close to 200,000 brands participated in its W11 showcase event for retail, and together launched more than 1 million new products.

“We’re not only driving sales goals, but helping them launch new products successfully. This is a proven success model for launching new products,” Tung claimed. “This addresses a lot of the pain points of CMOs around how they launch new products successfully and efficiently.”  

Another element Tung saw helping Alibaba fulfil its aims is increasingly sophisticated use of data and insight to personalise engagement. In fact, in a recent interview, Tung described the company’s ambition as “more than just selling products on Alibaba, it’s about translating the data with AI to insights for optimising marketing efforts”.

Read more: How Alibaba is using AI to power the future of business

“We offer valuable, real-time insight to brands via our platform. That’s why our relationship with those brands and marketing leaders is getting closer and closer than before,” he added.  

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