SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- Anta Sports Products is starting a nationwide marketing campaign to promote its biggest sponsorship investment, a four-year alliance with China's Olympic Organizing Committee (COC), in an effort to beat rivals Li Ning, Nike and Adidas in China.
The COC deal, said Marketing Director Samuel Xu, "is a milestone" for Anta, a company that started out manufacturing shoes for western sportswear companies.
Anta's agreement succeeds an earlier relationship the committee had with Adidas, its official sportswear partner for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Anta's four-year deal involves 11 high-profile sporting events. Besides the 2010 Winter Games and the 2012 Summer Games, Anta will sponsor COC delegations at regional and global events, such as the East Asian Games taking place this week in Hong Kong, the Asian Games in Guangzhou in November 2010 and the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in August 2010.
As the committee's sponsor, Anta is designing the official sportswear to be worn by the Chinese sports delegation at the events, including at victory ceremonies. The designs incorporate traditional Chinese elements and use the red and yellow of China's national flag.
Anta won't reveal how much it is investing in the sponsorship deal, signed in June 2009 in Beijing, but "it's worth a lot of money," Mr. Xu said with a laugh. "It's the single biggest expense in Anta's history and is possibly the biggest deal to date in the history of China's sports industry."
Despite a big price tag, the Olympic deal was an easy decision for the company, Mr. Xu said. "It's hard for us to surpass Li Ning. This is our big opportunity to represent China and hopefully close the gap between Li Ning and Anta."
The race between Anta and Li Ning Co. for control of China's sportswear industry is much like a longstanding rivalry between ambitious athletic teams. Reliable figures for the sportswear business in China are hard to get, but Anta is believed to be almost neck-and-neck with Li Ning in sales and market share.
Li Ning Co. was founded in 1990, four years before Anta, and the company's namesake was the first Olympic hero in China's modern history. Li Ning is still held in such high regard that China's government chose the former star gymnast to light the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony for the Summer Games.
Even though it lacks that instant brand name recognition, Anta is closing in on Li Ning through marketing that is more youth-oriented, sponsorship of athletes like tennis pro Jelena Jankovic and China's basketball league, and strong sales and distribution in third- and fourth-tier markets.
Anta is opening flagship stores in tier one cities like Shanghai and Beijing, Mr. Xu said, even though sportswear sales there are dominated by international brands, and it is also "growing quite fast in tier-two cities."
But Anta's greatest strength lies in China's smaller cities and towns where average incomes are still so low that few consumers can afford foreign brands like Nike and Adidas, the two leading multinational sportswear brands in China.
"Especially in tier-three and tier-four markets, Anta is quite strong," said Mr. Xu, who worked at multinational agencies like JWT and Grey Group before he joined Anta in 2006. "When I visit those cities, I can see Anta is dominating."
Anta has also invested heavily in research and development. For instance, the Xiamen-based company hired a group of Japanese engineers and designers who worked for Reebook in China until Adidas acquired that company in mid-2005. They studied the feet of nearly every major athlete in China and then, at Anta's high-tech shoe lab in Fujian province, created high-performance athletic shoes specifically suited to the shape and movement of Chinese feet.
Li Ning leads Anta in sportswear apparel sales, but Anta is now the No. 1 domestic player in athletic footwear. Anta's R&D investments have even helped it take on Nike and Adidas, whose expertise is built on their understanding of larger, Caucasian feet.
"Li Ning used to be the voice of China's sports brands," said Gavin Hu, a senior account director at JWT, Shanghai, the Chinese sportswear company's agency of record. "But Anta has been growing very quickly during the last four to five years. The COC sponsorship is a milestone. Its key goal is to replace Li Ning as the representative of China's sports brands."
The strategy behind Anta's COC platform has two objectives, Mr. Hu said. "The first is to represent China and the second, as an authentic sportswear brand, is to represent sports and encourage a mass audience in China to take part and participate in sports more often."
The first phase of the ad campaign connecting Anta's brand to China's Olympic ambitions, called "Sparkle," launched in early December. A TV spot and print ads features Chinese athletes taking part in winter sports such as ice skating.
The second phase, expected to break in late January 2010 and run through Chinese New Year in February, will have a more patriotic tone. The campaign will be backed throughout next year with retail activities, events and promotions.
"Don't look at this first ad as an independent campaign, since the COC sponsorship will run through the 2012 Olympics," Mr. Xu said. "We will keep the 'This moment for China' strategy for the next four years."
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