Alibaba goes for the gold with massive ‘small’ campaign

While the IOC recently lost the patronage of McDonalds, Chinese e-commerce heavyweight Alibaba signed on as an Olympic sponsor in January 2017.

Outside of those familiar with the multi-billion dollar ‘Amazon of China’, Alibaba is relatively unknown in Japan and the rest of the world. Given this situation, it remained a mystery to many observers as to how Alibaba would utilize its ambitious sponsorship investment. In becoming an Olympic worldwide partner, Alibaba is now a part of the highest and most expensive sponsorship tier.

With Alibaba’s first global campaign in full swing coinciding with the opening of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, we now have a better idea of their intended direction.

Alibaba’s message:


Going big on “small” is an interesting direction for such a massive company, but one that makes sense. As China’s premier online e-commerce juggernaut, Alibaba’s core business is serving as gateway between over 10 million small businesses and 500 million customers.

Concerning their sponsorship goal, Alibaba chief marketing officer Chris Tung said, “We want to reach two billion consumers and tens of millions of merchants and small businesses, and our Olympic partnership will support that goal over the long term.”

Using the familiar Olympic feel-good narrative that the international sporting competition empowers underdogs to overcome impossible odds, Alibaba has created a trio of inspiring videos. These videos are now being seen by audiences around the world, mainly via YouTube ads. This online-focused strategy is part of Alibaba’s push for a more “digital” Olympic experience.

Having a look at the individual videos, we have one image piece and two anecdotal stories, one from almost 100 years ago and another from more recent times.

The image piece (above) starts with a few facts about “smallness”:

“99% of people think they are nobody”
“97% of companies are small companies”
“92% of countries are small countries”
“95% of athletes are unknown”

In the story that follows, a male narrator reads through the following over a backdrop of inspiring Olympic-esque scenes.

“Small can be calculated, but it cannot be ignored. So, we have a different point of view on small. We believe a small character has unrivaled power. A small action can touch millions of people. A small step forward can set a new record. A small change can create a difference. A small corner can impact the whole world. A small country’s story can inspire all humanity. From small to big, everyone is making a difference. Alibaba believes in the power of small. We are proud to be the worldwide partner of the Olympic Games. Giving everyone an equal chance. Together, we’re all in this game. From one to billions, we see the power of small. TO THE GREATNESS OF SMALL. Alibaba empowers small businesses and young people around the world.”

The second video in the series covers an ambitious young Kenyan’s story of trying to create a Kenyan national ice hockey team.

“Kenya’s hockey team dreams big”

Given the lack of snow in Kenya, this goes along with the familiar Olympic story of overcoming seemingly impossible odds in the name of sport, ambition, and national pride.

In the third video, Alibaba uses one of the interesting facets of Olympic sponsorship to tell an Olympic story from the Amsterdam 1928 Summer Olympics.

“An Olympic rower’s small decision makes a big difference”

As mentioned in the previous article, Olympic sponsors have the right to use materials such as media from past Olympic and Paralympic Games and past Japanese Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Obviously, 19-year-old Alibaba was not a sponsor of the 1928 Games, but the rights afforded to sponsors are retroactive.

Therefore, we eagerly anticipate that the next wave will have an epic video featuring Zeus and Hercules. Jokes aside, Alibaba’s digital-focus push to maximize awareness of its Olympic sponsorship investment is interesting as an example of well thought-out leverage of the history, values, and spirit of the Olympics as a platform for effective corporate PR.

In the next article in this series, we will focus on a case study featuring a Japanese sponsor.