“Crisis can breed opportunity”: should Tokyo 2020 rebrand?

As COVID-19 changes the events landscape, with delays to events as big as the Olympics, designers discuss how brands like Tokyo 2020 can adapt – and possibly even thrive.

Coronavirus has changed the global events calendar. Glastonbury has been postponed to next year, design festivals have been cancelled or delayed, and UEFA Euro 2020 will now take place in 2021. Events on a local level – such as Lewisham’s Borough of Culture status – have also been changed. The time and money involved is vast; preparation includes designing identities for the events themselves, as well as branding for sponsors.

When it comes to global events, few come bigger than the Olympics. Tokyo 2020 has been rescheduled to next year, though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the branding would not change, in part so that it remains a “beacon of hope”. The date might read 2021, but the branding will say 2020. We talk to designers about whether that’s the right decision, and what event branding might look like post-coronavius.


“Unfortunately 2020 will run for at least 18 months”

Harmonized chequered emblem – the logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, by Asao Tokolo

One danger of not changing the Olympic branding from 2020 is that it’s not been a particularly good year for many. Michael Johnson, founder and creative director of London-based consultancy Johnson Banks, says: “Whether it be your favourite sports tournament or a crucial climate change conference, we’ll all be adjusting to a series of postponed events running far into next year. This, unfortunately, means that 2020 – a year that will almost certainly be another annus horribilis – will run for at least 18 months, if not longer. Just when all of us will want to forget about it and move on.”


“If it being delayed would make it irrelevant, the identity already is”

However, Chris Moody, global chief design officer at Wolff Olins, says that it is the “right decision to hold firm”. He comments: “Olympic identities are built many years before and designed to endure for many years after. The work that has been done to date deserves its time in the spotlight, there’s nothing in the design that feels inappropriate or wrong in relation to the challenges we currently face – if anything, the simple sentiment of togetherness is more relevant than ever.

“It’s safe to assume keeping the 2020 name is to avoid the waste of mountains of pre-made material which again should be applauded as wise. A powerful Olympic identity is like architecture: it should be built to celebrate the place in which it stands, it should aim for enduring love over just short-term wins. If it being delayed (even for such an momentous reason) would make it irrelevant – it already is. However it is now more important than ever that wider elements like tone of voice, sonic and imagery augment the identity system to reflect the need for close human interaction, we all now feel so deeply.”


“Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) will the most established truly global events post-COVID 19”

The Olympic Mascots, part of the Tokyo 2020 branding

Sam Hollis, head of strategy at FutureBrand, echoes Moody’s thoughts and adds that it’s strong “symbolism” for the brand to stay the same.

He says: “Retaining the Tokyo 2020 name makes sense, for a number of reasons – the one that’s going to get the most airtime I’d imagine is what it says symbolically. Were it to be called Tokyo 2021, it would be as if Tokyo 2020 had been cancelled and replaced. The last time The Olympics were cancelled was in 1944 due to World War II. Retaining the 2020 name makes it clear this is merely a delay – the event being more important than the precise timing. It’s a nuance, but it’s important – Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) will be among the first, and certainly the most established truly global events post-COVID 19.

“IOC president Thomas Bach spoke about it being ‘a true celebration of humanity after having overcome this unprecedented crisis, a true celebration of the determination of all of us, a true demonstration of the Olympic spirit that unites us all.’ The cost of delay will be huge, but the anticipation and the unrestrained sense of defiance and celebration when it does occur will be unmatched. Tokyo 2020 will be historically iconic.”


A “pragmatic” approach

Hollis also offers a practical reason to retain the branding: merchandise. He adds: “Tokyo 2020 branding has already been on merchandise everywhere since 2015, with official stores retailing merchandise since 2018. In Japan, it’s everywhere; on commercials, in the subway, on billboards. Nike has designed Tokyo 2020 kits. Mattel has designed Olympic themed barbie dolls for goodness sake. The preparation and investment that the IOC, Tokyo, and countless Olympic partners will have already made in the brand of Tokyo 2020 will be eye-watering. So delaying, rather than replacing, makes sense for pragmatic and rational reasons as well as symbolic and emotional ones.”


The 2020 branding carries an “emotional significance”

Keren Bester, creative communications strategy director at Design Bridge London, agrees that keeping the branding is “absolutely the right thing to do”.

She adds: “We need to acknowledge, rather than ignore, the enormous upheaval that we are all facing in 2020.  Nothing acknowledges this more clearly than the simple fact of the 2020 Olympic Games being held in 2021.  Yes, many brands will have already invested huge sums in developing communications assets and merchandise for the Games bearing the 2020 branding, but this is not just a pragmatic decision in solidarity with sponsors.  More importantly, it is one that bears the emotional significance of global solidarity during one of the most trying times in modern history.  In the spirit of the collective good that the Olympic Games symbolises – as we celebrate the long-anticipated, physical coming together of the global community in 2021 – we will be asked to recognise the global hardship, suffering and losses of 2020, and to acknowledge the extraordinary people who put themselves on the line for our health and safety. Lest we forget.”


“A unique chance to refocus the brand”

The Olympic Torch being lit

Katy Scott, senior designer at London-based branding consultancy Brandpie, says that while changing the brand would “disregard” the work of designers, keeping the same branding “does not go far enough to acknowledge this global pandemic”.

She says: “Creating a new identity from scratch would be to wholly disregard something that a group of individuals have poured their energy into. This would go against the new mentality that has been instilled in us since the pandemic unfolded.

“Instead, this is a unique chance to refocus the brand messaging and communicate what this ‘brave new world’ in Tokyo 2021 will look like. There is a powerful commonality between those who have united to fight COVID-19, whose efforts have been much like the Olympic Games itself; an event symbolic of communities coming together in celebration of the mental and physical endurance of exceptional people. A display of recognition would build real meaning into the Olympic brand and reinforce the message behind Pierre de Coubertin’s seminal Olympic rings, which express the union of the five continents and the coming together of athletes worldwide.”


“Crisis can breed opportunity”

The Euro 2020 identity launch, in 2016

Tokyo 2020 has a £976m marketing budget, and the scale of that investment will be a big influence on any branding changes. And the games’ popularity attracts multi-million spends from international brands such as Nike, Airbnb and Coca-Cola. It is not only the Olympics that will be affected. The 2020 Euro Championship will now also be held next year, another huge event – with an identity years in the making, and to which brands will have invested vast sums of money. Delays to these events shouldn’t necessarily spell doom, according to Katy Scott.

She says: “Crisis can breed opportunity. Postponement of global events due to COVID-19 gives brands associated with them a unique advantage. It provides the opportunity to react on a world stage; with a louder voice than their counterparts, who do not have the same platform.

“The unimaginable is happening in society; we are on state lockdown, people are disinfecting their groceries and approaching someone on the same side of the street is fraught. Brands need to respond to this new status quo by designing the previously unimaginable. This movement calls for social responsibility. Brands need to be flexing their social conscience muscle, injecting much needed reassurance and optimism back into society as well as thinking outside the box. Audiences need to remain engaged, the rich ideas that were poured into their existing campaigns should be exploited to establish a dialogue that resonates up to and beyond the event looking towards the future. A future which looks markedly different from the one we exist in. With so many social, financial, and economic factors at play, the challenge will be how?”


“If your product isn’t a necessity, you’d better hope your brand is”

As Scott suggests, the state of branding post-coronavirus might look very different. Adam Weiss, founder and creative director of San Francisco-based branding studio, Landscape says that brands should use this time to evaluate their “stories”.

He says: “A scenario to consider: What brands would you actually miss were they to vanish tomorrow. If you couldn’t have their product could it be replaced or duplicated — could the centre of gravity shift platforms? I think it’s likely. But if they’re gone – whose story do you miss? The top of mind are: Leica, Patagonia, Teenage Engineering, Apple, The New York Times, a San Francisco-based tea shop Samovar, Nike, LOT.

“A few big expected ones, but these brands stick to their values and challenge us as people to be optimistic about our potential on the other side of challenge. They are delivering the goods and going big on their cultural vision. That is, they are invested deeply in our cultural health. Apple led me to Carl Sagan, and Carl to my current philosophy regarding the importance of design. As COVID-19 solidified its presence in the U.S. Nike asked the world to stay inside on their landing page, a billboard worth god-knows how much, while Adidas tried to sell me Yeezys.

“There are products I use and appreciate, but their brands, vacant. I spend hours a week on Instagram but what’s its story? What does Twitter stand for? Sonos is all over my home but has no space in my heart (as I struggle through the UI while my two-year old clamours for Baby Shark). Function and vision will rule. How are you helping your customers navigate the most stressful moments of their lives? How do you make life better? I’ll buy what I need — I’ll align with who makes me care.”


“Do they pretend the crisis never happened?”

It will probably require a degree of experimentation, and working out public response, according to Dave Ralph, senior design and innovation strategist at design consultancy Seymourpowell.

He says: “Global events attract brands of a certain size and pedigree. I’m sure they have renegotiated placements for revised scheduling and will be reviewing creative to see if it can be repurposed. More interesting is how brands are responding right now. So far, marketeers are keeping brand messages factual and serious. It’s the correct, low risk response. But as life returns to normal they have a choice to make. Do they look back with campaigns of goodwill, but risk being seen as capitalising on the crisis? Or do they pretend the crisis never happened? We will see both approaches in the next 6 months and it will be interesting to see how the public responds.”


“An avalanche of ‘we beat the virus’ chest-beating”

Michael Johnson adds a warning that consumers should be wary of brands exploiting post-coronavirus goodwill: “Will there be ‘opportunities’ for brands post-lock down? I fear we’ll see an avalanche of ‘we beat the virus’ chest-beating’ and a lot of right-wing politicians lobbying for the return to greed-is-good business-as-usual. I for one hope that the ‘re-set’ that lock-down has enforced on us will force some to look at their priorities and use branding for good, not bad.”

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