San Yin Mei credits her "tough love" upbringing by a Singaporean tiger mother for teaching her early on that failure and risk-taking are necessary elements for success. That advice is serving the grown-up Ms. San more than ever.
The world's largest sporting-goods marketer isn't used to being the underdog, but Nike reported in July that sales in China will probably continue to fall for the next two quarters, which would make it five in a row.
To get back in the game, Nike is turning to marketers like Ms. San, whose petite size belies a background in rough sports like field hockey, wakeboarding and snowboarding.
Ms. San -- the only woman among Nike's eight brand-connection managers worldwide -- is facing off against fierce competitors like Adidas and even fast-fashion brands like Zara and H&M.
Those companies do well because Chinese tend to watch sports more than play them and view sports apparel as a fashion decision, not a functional purchase. Also, school sports facilities are underfunded in an academic environment that favors scholastics more than athletics. When sports are offered in schools, they are presented as joyless mandatory requirements.
While Nike's iconic "Just Do It" tagline does resonate with Chinese, careful localization is required.
"The global work is outstanding," Ms. San said, but doesn't always work locally, especially if it has too much nuance and humor, or features westerners who local athletes don't know.
Nike's branding is about the pursuit of greatness at all levels, but "the notion of being 'great' does not apply to normal people in China, it's reserved for professional athletes. The challenge we face is establishing a point of view that celebrates effort as well as winning," added Ms. San, who has spent the last four years building the Nike brand in China.
Despite recent disappointing sales for Nike -- still the market leader with a 12.1% share in China -- the marketer is sticking with its message. "The strategy is still about getting Chinese to play sports and choose Nike shoes, apparel and gear based on stellar sports performance," said Shanghai-based marketing consultant Charles de Brabant. "It's a smart long-term view to win back share as the market matures."
Ms. San, whose bubbly personality has charmed top athletes like Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods during Nike-sponsored visits to China, puts it this way: "The best part of my job is telling inspiring stories in a way that's authentic. We're trying to change the conversation to encourage sports participation, while honoring the pursuit of greatness."