Skating on thin ice: How Steven Bradbury met BenQ

Skating on thin ice: How Steven Bradbury met BenQ

Steven Bradbury not only won Olympic gold he also helped BenQ sell plenty of PCs

A collage of some of the Ben Q ads featuring Steven Bradbury

A collage of some of the Ben Q ads featuring Steven Bradbury

When Acer decided to spin off its computer peripherals into a separate, stand-alone identity called BenQ in 2002, it faced a branding challenge.

Not only would BenQ compete with other products on the market, but those from Acer as well. To help overcome this, Acer invested about $60 million internationally into the BenQ brand and products, which included enlisting the Leo Burnett agency in Taiwan to develop BenQ’s advertising. In Australia, local agency, McCorkell & Associates (M&A) was faced with the choice of either handling Acer’s or BenQ’s advertising, but ultimately the agency went with the new BenQ brand for the new and exciting opportunities it presented.

To kick off BenQ’s entry into the Australian market, M&A devised a promotional campaign that featured Steven Bradbury, who then had just returned to Australia following his surprise gold medal win in the 1000 metre speed skating event at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The sponsorship deal, estimated to be worth around $100,000 at the time, effectively made Bradbury the face of BenQ and its products for the next 18 months.

M&A managing director, Scott McCorkell, was the brainchild of the Bradbury campaign for BenQ and personally chose the athlete for the role. While McCorkell is good friends with Bradbury now, he admits that back then he “did not know Steven [Bradbury] from a bar of soap.”

However, those initial meetings with Bradbury convinced McCorkell that the athlete would accurately represent the BenQ brand as it was being perceived at that point in time.

“It had to have an edge to it, be distinctive, and memorable, and what BenQ was bringing to the party was that they were going to be perceived as not just another ‘me too’ type brand, which you could say for most of the industry,” McCorkell said.

As an example, McCorkell paints BenQ as a brand that tried to carve itself out a space that a cutting edge company such as Sony held many years ago.

“There have always been too many ‘me too’ products on the market, but if you bought a Sony you were considered cool, and that was what BenQ was targeting,” he said.

The BenQ campaign made heavy used of Bradbury, which usually consisted of the athlete holding a BenQ product with an exaggerated face reaction to communicate surprise, confusion, or interest.

“For example, there was one advertisement where he is looking down an LCD screen as he was inspecting the blade end of an ice-skate boot, and that was to show that the screen was as thin as an ice skate,” McCorkell said.

Eclectic choice

While employing a sports celebrity for an advertising campaign is nothing new and a common practising in the advertising industry, due to the immediate good will and recognition a skilled athlete can bring through association with a company and/or its products, the sensational aspect of Bradbury’s win at the 2002 Winter Olympics made him an eclectic choice as a brand ambassador.

Bradbury was not only catapulted into instant fame due to his gold medal win, but by the amazing twist of events that enabled him to claim the victory. While Bradbury was trailing the other skaters in the 1000 metre speed skating event, a spectacular crash by four of the leading competitors on the final corner meant that Bradbury, who was several metres behind, managed to avoid the pile-up and claim victory to become the first person from Australia to win a Winter Olympic event.

Bradbury’s unlikely win immediately turned him into a folk hero, although some commentators at the time were more critical of his “accidental win.”

Despite these perceived misgivings about Bradbury’s gold medal, McCorkell personally encountered no concerns from BenQ or anyone else about using Bradbury for the campaign, as he felt a win was a win.

“At the end of the day, if you win a gold medal you’re not going to hand it back for being accidental,” he said.

The 18-month advertising campaign was a resounding success for M&A and its client BenQ, and helped to establish Acer’s spin off brand within a short time.

While M&A had pulled off the feat of launching BenQ into the South Asia markets where it operated, BenQ ultimately went in a different direction with its follow up campaign by employing agencies that were more focused on product selling than branding. According to McCorkell, this move went against M&A’s original goal of making BenQ unique and instead turned it into another “me too” brand.

“We gave it such a great go to make it a stand alone brand away from Acer, and it’s a little disappointing that a decade later they’ve become a discounted product at Harvey Norman just like everyone else,” McCorkell said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way things are.”

Despite that, McCorkell has seen BenQ weather the touch marketplace and go on to bigger and better things, while many other brands from that time have disappeared.

“BenQ has stood the test of time and it’s now a brand that people recognise,” McCorkell said. As for employing Bradbury for the campaign, McCorkell feels that M&A could have “not been more spot on.”

“In fact, Steven was then used in a global campaign that we shot in China and was used around the globe,” he said. “It gives you an idea that we got it right and it did work to our advantage.”

As for Bradbury’s legacy, McCorkell points out that the now retired athlete continues to be involved in regular public speaking opportunities.

“His 15 minutes of fame has certainly extended to a number of years now, and he’s still going strong,” he said.

As an example, McCorkell points to Alisa Camplin, the aerial skier who also won gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. She is still around but she is not doing anything on the same level as Bradbury, who was writing a book in addition to his public speaking.

“The majority of people with this type of prowess and a little bit of luck in their win don’t last this long, but Steven’s nice and gracious character enabled him to last a lot longer,” he said.

While McCorkell feels that M&A, a big agency that has been around for a long time, would not have “lived or died” based on the outcome of the BenQ campaign, he is humble of the success that it brought to all the parties that were involved.

“At the end of the day, it’s one of the many campaigns that we design and make the grade,” he said. As for Bradbury, McCorkell has seen the former athlete have an amazing run for what could be considered an “accidental winner”.

“Having said that, I still get good feedback from clients about Steven and what he’s done for them in other occasions,” he said. “For both Bradbury and BenQ, they were very lucky to be partnered together.”

A tale of two BenQs

According to McCorkell, when the BenQ brand was brought down to Australia, it was originally presented by Acer as being pronounced as “Benck”.

“The local staff at the M&A office in Singapore were also pronouncing it the same way, so straight away we noticed that the brand was affected,” he said.

M&A in Australia immediately contacted the Acer head office in Taiwan to inform them of the pronunciation issue.

“When you look at the logo, which is written with a capital B and Q, you naturally tend to pronounce it as ‘Bencue’,” McCorkell said.

Because the name was going to be pronounced differently in different countries, M&A felt that the brand problem needed to be solved. Fortunately, about a week later word came out of the Acer head office in Taiwan that the new pronunciation for the brand was “Bencue.” “So we believe we had a bit of a win there, whether it was our doing or not,” McCorkell said.

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