Li Na and Zheng Jie were two players who took up the Chinese Tennis Association on an offer in 2008 (after the Olympics) to take greater control of their training and keep more of their prize money. The tradeoff was giving up some of the support and security offered by the CTA. Less than two years after this experiment began, Li Na and Zheng Jie are opening the 2010 tennis season by becoming the first pair of Chinese players to make it to the singles final at a Grand Slam (they were also the first pair to the quarterfinals). Li Na took down Venus Williams in her quarterfinal, and Zheng beat Maria Kirilenko.
These two didn't come out of nowhere, and it's not the first major success for China's female tennis stars. Zheng and her partner Zi Yan won the doubles final at the Australian Open in 2006, and Zheng reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2008. But coming just one season after both players took control of their own careers, it supports Li's argument last year that such freedom should be extended to other sports. "It is very important for us to have the right to choose. I really mean it," she said last spring, according to an AFP report.
Li Na's semi against Serena Williams is live right now, and Zheng Jie's semi against Justine Henin will take place Friday morning. And in keeping the footwear theme in this week's posts, it should be noted that Zheng Jie is wearing Chinese brand Anta shoes and gear. Li Na is still with Nike.
Related: Zhang Shuai and the future of Chinese tennis
Li Na image: Xunying.com
Tags: Anta, Australian Open, Li Na, Nike, state sports system, tennis, Zheng Jie
Li Ning may have surpassed Adidas to become the number two sportswear brand in China, AdAge says, on the strength of 32.4 percent revenue growth in the first half of 2009. In 2008, it opened a design center in Portland. In 2009, it opened a concept store there as well. Along with new stores in Hong Kong and Singapore, and the hiring of more foreign staff in the Beijing headquarters, the Portland activity seems to indicate more interest in international business, and business practices.
If you have spent the last several months in Beijing, it's evident that Li Ning has recently put more into advertising than Adidas or Nike have, with decidedly more ads on television and in public places like subway stations.
Madden's piece highlights some interesting numbers: Li Ning cut ad spending 37 percent in 2009, compared to 75 percent and 65 percent for Nike and Adidas; Li Ning cornered 14.2 percent of the Chinese sportswear market in 2009, to Nike's 16.7 percent and Adidas's 13.9 percent.
One of Li Ning's most visible smart moves has been its work with Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva (伊辛巴耶娃). With a lack of great Chinese track and field athletes to cheer for in the Beijing Olympics, local fans gravitated toward her, and won't soon forget that her remarkable performance took place in the Bird's Nest, with China as host. She was with Adidas during the games, but Li Ning picked her up a year ago in a 5-year, $7.5-million deal. Ads currently airing on Chinese television show her alongside an otherwise unknown Chinese dancer, Zhao Kexin (赵可忻). While Isinbayeva shows off her pole-vaulting skills and incredible physique, Zhao does things that middle class Chinese women are more likely to identify with—jogging, dancing, stretching. She's essentially a stand-in for the target audience in an ad that promotes the beauty of athletic women.
Li Ning has invested more in research and development lately as well, and it shows in the quality and uniqueness of some of its products. And the brand's Olympic sponsorship strategy looked pretty smart to this non-expert, as does the way they use their biggest NBA pitchman, Baron Davis.
For all of its efforts, in my opinion, Li Ning's chances at success as a global brand are slim. Between its logo's resemblance to Nike's swoosh, and the "Anything is Possible" tagline that is often derided for its resemblance to Adidas's more clever "Impossible is Nothing," Li Ning looks, at first glance, like one big knockoff. The explanation that the logo is meant to call to mind the Chinese flag and the letter "L" aren't likely to win over consumers outside of Asia. Nor is the brand's history. It was founded by a 1984 Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast—a distinguished background, for sure, but not one that's going to move sneakers in New York and Los Angeles. I am skeptical as to whether Li Ning truly has its sights set on the U.S. market, or if it just wants to appear to be an international brand, for the sake of the growing domestic consumer market.
A Chinese sportswear brand will go global someday. It won't be Li Ning, but it will owe some of its success to Li Ning's trailblazing ways.
Isinbayeva/Li Ning image: Ce.cn
Tags: Adidas, Baron Davis, Li Ning, Nike, sports marketing, Yelena Isinbayeva
Adidas reportedly shelled out 70 million euros to be an official Olympic sponsor. Adidas gear was also all over Olympians, great for television. But aside from shoes and uniforms, Adidas wasn't particularly visible in Olympic venues. It had no special presence on the Olympic Green, but its beautiful flagship store in Sanlitun near the Workers' Stadium and Workers' Gymnasium saw lots of foot traffic.
Its Olympic ad campaign, though beautifully designed and fitting in concept (Together in 2008, Impossible is Nothing), came up short in the personnel categories. That campaign had four primary faces, in sports that are very popular in China--diver Hu Jia, footballer Zheng Zhi, basketball player Sui Feifei and a few women's volleyball players. Hu pulled out due to injury, Zheng and the men's football team had an embarrassing performance and Sui Feifei was only sixth in scoring on Team China. The women's volleyball team played strong in a very tough field, but in the end only came through with the minimum result acceptable to the hometown fans, a bronze medal.
China's biggest sports apparel brand had the biggest marketing coup of the games—its founder, Li Ning, carrying the Olympic flame on a three-minute slow-motion run to the top of the Bird's Nest, where he lit the Olympic cauldron. The company's stock went up the next day, and Li Ning will always have his stamp on what seems to be an especially important part of the Olympics to Chinese fans.
Li Ning also had its name on the uniforms of China's diving and table tennis teams, who delivered dominant performances, as well as the Spanish national basketball team, which gave Team USA a tough match before losing in the gold medal game.
Nike's two biggest bets on Chinese athletes were Yi Jianlian and Liu Xiang. Yi was solid but not explosive, averaging 9 points a game. The Chinese national team, wearing Nike jerseys, didn't really exceed expectations, but certainly didn't come up short, making it to the quarterfinals before losing to Lithuania. But Chinese fans were more excited about catching a glimpse of Team USA, who were also sporting Nike's hot new jersey, available in stores all over Beijing.
Nike had to deal with the toughest spin job of any Olympic marketer this year—how to salvage its investment in China's biggest sports star, Liu Xiang, when he didn't even compete in the games. Nike's immediate answer--a full page ad celebrating the love of sport even in defeat--succeeded in becoming part of the stream of catharsis after Liu bowed out. Nike got some negative publicity for its efforts to hunt down netizens who alleged that the shoe company had coerced Liu to drop out rather than lose to Robles.
But Liu and Yi weren't the only athletes that Nike put is name behind. It was all over team China, and ready with full-page ads in China Daily and front-page ads in Titan sports news when any of its athletes won a medal or had a strong performance. Swimmer Zhang Lin (silver medalist), boxer Zou Shiming (gold medalist) and beach volleyball duo Tian Jia and Wang Fei (silver medalists) were just a few of the lower-profile high-achieving athletes that Nike celebrated in its Olympic campaign.
Dollar for dollar, Puma might have gotten the most of its Olympic investment. Its hopes ran on two spiked shoes-- those of sprinter Usain Bolt, who loped across the finish line to set the 100-meter dash world record. China loves a winner, and Bolt and the dominant Jamaican team were very well-received in Beijing. Jacques Rogge can complain all he wants, but most Chinese don't mind a guy who's willing to revel in his moment.
If you weren't wearing a Speedo LZR Racer in this Olympics, you might as well never leave the Water Cube's warm-up pool. Nine out of every 10 swimming gold medals went to LZR wearers. The only complaint that people had about the LZR was that it made swimmers too fast, world records too common. The suit was considered such an integral part of success that Nike agreed to let its swimmers wear LZRs instead of Nike suits. Speedo doesn't have a big presence at Chinese sports retailers—swimwear here tends to be generic instead of branded—but China, along with the rest of the world, has no choice but to see Speedo as the leader in swimwear technology.
Tags: Adidas, athletics, Beijing Olympics, Hu Jia, Li-Ning, Liu Xiang, marketing, Nike, Olympics, Puma, Speedo, Sui Feifei, swimming, Tian Jia, Titan, Usain Bolt, volleyball, Wang Fei, Zhang Lin, Zheng Zhi, Zou Shiming
One key difference is Adidas' decision to invest in being an official sponsor of the games. This grants advantages like the right to use trademarked images (the rings, the event's logo, the words "Beijing 2008"), access to prime tickets and hotel rooms and the opportunity to set up hospitality areas close to Olympic venues like the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube.
Nike is not an Olympic sponsor, and one of the consequences of that is restriction of its advertising in Beijing during the Olympic period. Until about a week ago, Nike had a large advertising presence around shopping hot spot Wangfujing, but that changed after the restrictions went into effect July 19.
Nike ads that plastered the nearby Dongdan subway station have been covered in white. The athletes whose faces hawk Nike from above the shops at Wangfujing have been replaced with "Beijing 2008" posters bearing the images of the Fuwa (the official mascots of these games) Beijing opera singers and the Great Wall. At the nearby basketball and soccer park that Nike owns rights to, the 15-foot ads that usually hang on the fences have been taken down, though the swooshes that mark half field and center court are still there. Even Nike's ads in Titan sports newspaper now bear only a simple swoosh and the "Just Do It" slogan. Gone are the images of Chinese Olympians.
Along Wangfujing, though, it's hard to see a disadvantage for Nike. All of the billboards, including the Adidas ones featuring the Chinese women's volleyball team, have been replaced with Beijing '08 signage. And Nike has bought up several retail locations in the area, along Chang'An Avenue (which intersects with Wangfujing a short distance east of Tian'anmen and the Forbidden City) and Wangfujing Street. It has two Wangfujing shops, including one with huge windows that afford passersby a good view of the life-size mannequins of hurdler Liu Xiang (刘翔) and basketball player Yi Jianlian (易建联), as well as a montage of several different Chinese Olympians wearing the brand.
The area around Wangfujing will be a favorite place for Beijing's Olympic visitors to spend time between basketball games and swim meets, but when the action starts it will focus around the actual events, where Adidas should have a complete monopoly over its biggest competitor.
Related: A walk down Wangfujing
Link: Advertising fight to the finish ahead of Beijing Olympics (Gulf News)
Tags: Adidas, advertising, marketing, Nike, Olympics, Wangfujing
It's hard to name a global brand that has had smarter China marketing practices than Nike. The series of advertising shorts above, first posted on YouTube two years ago, features everyday Chinese who can't help but turn their day-to-day lives into athletic showcases. A flat round cracker in a university cafeteria becomes a discus; a pair of boys use a repairman's bucket as a basketball hoop; a young woman uses judo moves to take down her boyfriend and snatch a bouquet of flowers from him. The commercials have a raw look, like they could have been shot by amateurs. And they will ring true—and funny—to anyone who has spent time in China.
Nike has had its missteps here, including a commercial featuring Lebron James bouncing the ball off of a kung fu master's forehead that is often cited as an example of what not to do when advertising in China. But Nike learned from that mistake, and does plenty of other things right.
To watch and search hundreds of China sports videos—from Liu Xiang's gold medal run in Athens to interviews with diver Guo Jingjing—check out China Sports Today's new YouTube playlists.
Tags: Lebron James, marketing, Nike, YouTube
So what's up with Nike's all Kobe, all the time strategy? A couple of weeks ago, it wasn't like that. He shared ads on Wangfujing with other Nike spokes-athletes Liu Xiang (110-meter hurdles world record holder), Roger Federer (tennis star) and Yi Jianlian (forward for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks). But Kobe just won the NBA's MVP award, he's leading the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff run and will be featured in a show on CCTV next week.
Tags: Adidas, advertising, Guo Jingjing, Kobe, Li-Ning, marketing, Nike, Tiger Woods, volleyball, Wangfujing
Big brands get local to boost China sales (CScout.com)
Soccer: Chelsea sow seeds for financial domination in Asia
Olympics: Hanging by a Thread (a feature from ESPN on diver Guo Jingjing and other Olympians)
Basketball: Young Buck bounds toward Beijing (A wrap-up of Yi Jianlian's rookie year in the NBA from China Daily)
Tags: Adidas, baseball, CBL, Guo Jingjing, links, marketing, Nike, soccer, swimming, Yi Jianlian