In a bold campaign, the El Segundo marketing firm Makai helped the Pacific Island nation of Tonga field its first-ever entry in the Winter Olympics – a men’s luge contestant who placed 32nd at the Sochi games. But the agency went beyond that: It tested the limits by legally changing the athlete’s name to promote the sponsor.
Robbie Thain, founder of Makai, suspected his stunt would draw the ire of the International Olympic Committee.
“This is like the forbidden fruit of sponsorship,” he said. “But we knew that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, meaning I don’t think the IOC will allow that to happen again.”
It all started five years ago when Tonga’s royal family hosted a casting call to find an athlete who would compete in luge. Fuahea Semi, a student and rugby player, was selected and sent to Germany to train. Thain, who happens to know the Tonga princess, got the account. (Tonga, near Fiji and Samoa, comprises 176 islands inhabited by only about 106,000.)
Shortly after getting the account, Makai convinced German underwear company Bruno Banani to be a sponsor, and Semi changed his name to, yes, Bruno Banani.
When Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, heard the news last year, he called the stunt a “perverse marketing idea.” But nothing could be done as the name change was legal, Thain said.
Makai was founded in Manhattan Beach in 1995 and has offices in Peru and Germany with a staff of 46. Clients include General Mills in Minneapolis; Nestle USA in Glendale; and McKee Foods’ Little Debbie products in Collegedale, Tenn.
Thain said the agency also does traditional marketing, but he wants to do more campaigns like the one for the Tongan luger.
“That’s really what we want to do more of,” he said.
– Subrina Hudson
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