Wu's aim: Help Li-Ning vault into global sport-apparel biz

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Abel Wu jokes that he joined Li-Ning Sports Goods Co. "to have more room to play."

He's also working for his hero, China's first celebrity athlete, Li Ning, a charismatic gymnast who picked up 106 gold medals over a 19-year career and founded the company in 1990.

But Mr. Wu's lighthearted and confident demeanor camouflages the massive task ahead as marketing director of one of China's most promising local companies. He was hired last February from Procter & Gamble Co., China's largest advertiser, where he spent nine years in Guangzhou overseeing brands such as Pampers, Crest, Olay, Whisper and Zest.

Now ensconced in a cramped office in Li-Ning's headquarters in Beijing, Mr. Wu plans to upgrade products and marketing and flesh out a game plan to turn Li-Ning into a global brand, using hype surrounding the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and proceeds from a June 2004 public offering.

"Abel is a lovely guy and a very talented marketer with a fantastic challenge," observed Austin Lally, head of beauty care at P&G China. "In a nation of more than a billion sports lovers, there must be the room and need for a distinctive local player and Li-Ning is well-placed to remain strong."

`PURE P&G'

The two-pronged mission would be a daunting task for any 33-year-old executive, but Mr. Wu enjoys the challenge of transforming Li-Ning into a modern company and brand-using, ironically, the American-style techniques he acquired at P&G.

"I'm pure P&G and our core belief is the same, to develop and execute a solid brand strategy. Only the products are different," he said. Pampers and sneakers may be marketed to different target consumers, but "the essence of marketing is the same."

Although he was a rising star at P&G, Mr. Wu says the U.S. company did not let him "use my 100% capacity. [P&G is] a great company, but it has big company's hierarchy and bureaucracy. [Working there] was not challenging to me anymore."

A glass ceiling does exist for mainland Chinese executives, said Kelvin Cheng, managing director of Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, Beijing, Li-Ning's agency. "When they've reached a certain level, they feel the limit because of language or country of origin or race," said Mr. Cheng.

In spite of his confidence, Mr. Wu concedes that turning Li-Ning into a global brand will not be easy. The company is estimated to control about 20% of local sportswear sales , but its clothes and shoes are only sold in a handful of shops in countries outside China. Overseas sales contributed less than 3% of the $145 million Li-Ning generated in sales revenue last year, but Mr. Wu expects foreign markets will account for more than half of Li-Ning's total sales as early as 2008.

To reach his target, Li-Ning will invest about 15% of its annual revenue over the next four years on branding initiatives and product development. The company has tapped international experts to help improve product design and quality. In 2002, it hired Burnett and its media arm, Starcom, to develop brand strategies and product advertising.

The agency is taking Mr. Wu's global aspirations cautiously: "It's a vision thing, rather than a marketing goal for now [for Li-Ning] to go global," said Mr. Cheng. But he added that Mr. Wu is "practical and willing to listen [to other opinions]. He is also quite easy to approach. ... He knows how to prioritize and spend his efforts where they are needed."

Cheat sheet

Name: Abel Wu

Age: 33

Now: Marketing director of Li-Ning Sports Goods Co., based in Beijing

Who: Ex-P&G China brand manager recruited by Li-Ning to help China's leading sportswear brand compete against Nike and Adidas

Challenge: Transform Li-Ning from a local player into a formidable global brand in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games

The company: China's first celebrity athlete, Li Ning, a charismatic gymnast who picked up 106 gold medals over a 19-year career, founded Li-Ning in 1990

Favorite sport: Soccer

His biggest marketing challenge: There is no average Chinese consumer. Cities are sophisticated, rural areas are not, so it's difficult to manage one brand that can meet consumers' needs across the nation of 1.2 billion.

Top tip for foreign marketers in China: Spend substantial time and effort to understand local consumers, who vary greatly from Americans and Europeans-and even among themselves.

Staying local: Raised and educated in China, Mr. Wu has had to compete with executives who spent years studying and working overseas. "I had to achieve much more and take much longer time to get the same rewards and recognition as my Western colleagues," he said.

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