Will Underwear Scam Kill Tongan's Olympic Dreams?


Still, this part of the story is true: Among those present at that South Pacific casting session was an agency that openly acknowledges its specialty in "guerrilla marketing," in other words, low-cost strategies that produce big effects. The California-based company's name, Makai, means "by the sea" in Hawaiian, and its CEO is acquainted with one of the Tongan princess's advisers. Mathias Ihle, the head of Makai Europe, based in the eastern German city of Leipzig, was also onboard from the start.

Spilling the Beans Ihle, 38, is sitting in a hotel near Leipzig's main train station. Eight employees from his company are holding an internal seminar there and have just come from a talk on "Ethics and Morals." Ihle refers to himself as a project manager or sometimes as a "liaison-officer to Tonga." But now, finding himself confronted with his client's real name -- Semi, rather than Banani, as revealed by SPIEGEL's research -- Ihle is watching his project go up in flames.

Next week, Semi -- aka Banani -- is scheduled to participate in the 2012 World Luge Championships in Altenberg, Germany. One of the event's sponsors is none other than Bruno Banani, the underwear company. Even ZDF, a German public television broadcaster, aired a piece on Bruno on its news magazine "heute journal." In it, ZDF suggested that the touching, exotic story of the luger from the South Sea bore similarities to that of the Jamaican bobsled team whose participation in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics inspired the 1993 Hollywood comedy "Cool Runnings."

Ihle has brought along his company co-director, Christian Belter, who accidentally introduces himself as "Mathias Belter." Indeed, by this point, everything having to do with names is getting muddled up. Both men are nervous and don't want to say anything. But after an hour, they confer, and Ihle admits everything. He says he "revealed" to the nation of Tonga how the athlete, once cast as "Bruno Banani," could be "better marketed in the media."

At that time, he says, the underwear company from Chemnitz wasn't in on the plan. Negotiations with Tongan authorities took six months, and then a new passport and even a new birth certificate bearing the new name were issued to Semi, almost as if he were part of some witness-protection program.

Ihle defends himself by saying that his agency hardly had any clients at that point. "We wanted to show the world that we have good ideas," he says.

A First in Sports Marketing

Of course, in the world of sports, this isn't the first example of strange and aggressive marketing. There's the Berlin basketball team Alba Berlin, named after a waste-disposal company, and the football team FC Nuremberg, which plays at the "easyCredit Stadium." Then there's German ski jumper Martin Schmitt, the underside of whose skis read "fluege.de," the name of an online site for purchasing airplane flights. When the website discovered that regulations allowed only the manufacturer's name to be used on athletes' equipment, it quickly bought a share in a Thuringia-based ski company, which now goes by the brand name fluege.de.

Still, until now, naming the participants in athletic competitions after their sponsors was limited to world of horse-racing. Ihle points out, however, that his plan worked out. After all, thanks to its luging namesake, the company Bruno Banani is now a Makai client or, more precisely, Makai Europe manages the fashion brand's social-media presence.

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