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