Characters Qualify for the Olympics

Licensed characters are playing a starring role this year in promoting national Olympic teams, Olympic sports, the Tokyo Olympic Games, and the Olympic spirit in general, both officially and non-officially.

There is still some uncertainty surrounding the event, which is set to kick off on July 23, after a year-long pandemic delay, amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and a new state of emergency in the host city. For tie-in partners, and those taking advantage of the event with themed but unofficial initiatives, a portion of the publicity and sales potential occurs in the months leading up to the Games. Thus, no matter what happens, these types of programs retain some value for the IP owners. For official partners, however, the all-important on-site sales, and sales in nearby Tokyo retail shops, are threatened by a potential ban on fans at the event.

This year’s Olympics-related initiatives featuring licensed characters take many forms:

  • Sanrio is collaborating with Team USA for a limited-edition range of co-branded Hello Kitty-Team USA merchandise. Since Hello Kitty’s positioning is all about friendship, she is billed as the team’s Global Ambassador for Inclusivity. Sprinter Allyson Felix is endorsing the product range, which includes apparel, sleepwear, accessories, toys, collectibles, gifts, and novelty items. Retail partners include Target, which has an exclusive girls’ collection, and Urban Outfitters, which is featuring a men’s apparel range. Sanrio.com and TeamUSAShop.com are also offering exclusive products.
  • Hasbro’s eOne division teamed with the British Olympic Association to enlist Peppa Pig as the special children’s ambassador for Team GB. The campaign’s goal is to promote a healthy and active lifestyle. Activations include live experiences, retail promotions and events, and digital content, as well as a limited range of merchandise. Products such as apparel and accessories, toys, home goods, publishing, and stationery are rolling out this summer; online retailer Character.com revealed its apparel collection this week, as one example. 
  • The Japanese Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers licensed nine anime characters as ambassadors for Team Japan and Tokyo 2020, including Astro Boy, Naruto, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball’s Goku, One Piece’s Luffy, Pretty Cure’s Cure Miracle and Cure Magical, Yo-Kai Watch’s Yo Jibanyan, and Shin Chan, to generate excitement for the games, both locally and internationally. The pairing has turned out to be controversial, since many Japanese residents (69% of them in one poll) want the Games cancelled due to COVID and do not like their favorite characters being associated with the event. (The deals with the IP owners were signed well before the pandemic began.) Limited merchandise such as keychains, caps, hand-held fans, t-shirts, coolers, and more are sold in the official Tokyo 2020 shops and e-commerce site.  
  • Nike, maker of SB Dunks skateboarding shoes, paired with Bandai for two special-edition styles tied to the Gundam franchise. Officially known as the Bandai Gundam x Nike SB Dunk High Project Unicorn, the collaboration is inspired by the franchise’s Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn manga novel and anime series. The shoes come in colors taking their cues from two versions of the Gundam Unicorn suit, the RX-O and the Banshee Norn in Destroy Mode. This year’s Olympic Games is the first in which skateboarding is an official sport. Nike created the jerseys for the skateboarding federations of Japan, France, Brazil, and the U.S., in collaboration with artist Piet Parra. It also sponsors 19 athletes across those four teams as well as 45% of all the women competing in street, one of the two skateboarding disciplines.
  • Adidas and Streetwear retailer Bait developed a sneaker, t-shirt, and hoodie capsule featuring One Punch Man’s Saitama, licensed by Viz Media in North America. This is not an Olympics tie-in, but the timing and product characteristics subtly capitalize on the event. Not only does the shoe highlight a Tokyo-born character, but it is based on the retro Adidas Montreal, a style developed for Adidas athlete-endorsers competing in the 1976 summer Olympics in that city.
  • Sega, which is the interactive gaming licensee of the Tokyo Games, aligned its Sonic character to the event by adding it to its title Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: The Official Video Game. The hedgehog appears in the form of a digital costume that players’ avatars can wear while competing in Olympic sports. Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 launched this month.
  • Baby Shark IP owner Pinkfong and Tokyo 2020 paired for a video meant to teach children about the 22 sports in this summer’s Paralympic Games, which take place just after the Olympics. The “Tokyo Para Sport Dance” video features Baby Shark characters along with Someity, the Paralympic mascot. The video is available on a variety of social media channels globally.
  • eOne worked with World Taekwondo to build a “Get Active with PJ Masks” campaign featuring the characters Catboy, Owlette, and Gekko, along with 12 taekwondo athletes. Components include an interactive website and a tutorial series to get kids interested in the sport and encourage an active lifestyle. The initiative, which launched in December, is not connected to the Olympics per se, but the timing and the fact that the athletes involved are Olympic medalists and world champions from around the globe informally connect it to the Games.

The pairing of characters and the Olympics is not unexpected, as licensors in both the sports and character sectors are, like most IP owners, on a constant quest for new collaboration partners. In this case, many of the partnerships have an extra layer of timeliness, fit, and meaning—and perhaps commercial potential—due to a combination of the Games’ location in Tokyo and the higher-than-ever global appeal of anime and kawaii characters. Note that five of the eight initiatives mentioned here involve characters with roots in Japan.

Update: Just after this story was posted, Tokyo 2020 organizers announced they will bar spectators from most Olympic events.

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