Li Ning turns up the heat with Shaq partnership

NBA star gives international flair and prestige to local brand

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BEIJING--Li Ning Co. has raised its game against two much-larger rivals, Nike and Adidas, with the debut of a product line co-branded with one of the world's biggest sports celebrities, Miami Heat star Shaquille O'Neal.

The new line of basketball clothes and shoes, the Li-Ning-Shaq Series, features the player's image, name, jersey number and signature. It will be sold only in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. That's where the brand needs star power, because fashion brands aimed at Chinese youth can't thrive by playing up local heritage, according to Abel Wu Xian Yong, who has led Li Ning's marketing department in Beijing for the past three years as deputy general manager of marketing. (This month, Mr. Wu moved into another role leading product development.)

Even though Li Ning was founded in 1990 by an Olympic gold medal winner who was China's first celebrity athlete, connecting the brand to the world's biggest basketball star gives it international flair and credibility in China, where basketball is enormously popular, but Li Ning increasingly is less so.

Five years ago, Li Ning was the leading sportswear brand in China but it has been overtaken by Nike and Adidas in an aggressive turf war for control of the mainland's enormous sportswear market. Lacking the resources and expertise of its global rivals, Li Ning's market share has fallen to roughly 20% today. Nike and Adidas each have a share about ten points higher.

"Shaq is the No. 1 strongest guy in the NBA, the biggest professional basketball player with an international reputation. He's very popular in China, no doubt about that," said Luis DaRosa, director of brand management at Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Worldwide, Beijing, Li Ning's longtime creative agency.

"Everyone was surprised that Li Ning and Shaq came to collaborate because Li Ning is a local Chinese brand, while Nike and Adidas already have a pool of international stars. Li Ning is still seen as smaller than the other two. Putting in an effort like this, bringing a top-class athlete into its profile, surprises and impresses local consumers, and that helps the brand's image."

Advertising for the Shaq series debuts next week nationwide in TV, print, outdoor and online media, supported by in-store promotions and events. The campaign will run until Chinese New Year, which falls in mid-February, during the country's peak retail sales period. Media buying was handled by another Publicis company, Starcom.

Since the five-year deal was first announced in August 2006, Mr. O'Neal has made one visit to China to support the partnership with Li Ning, but he is expected to return to the mainland in the fall before next year's basketball season begins.

While Mr. O'Neal is Li Ning's largest celebrity endorser, he is not the only one. Last month, the company signed an agreement with another National Basketball Association (NBA) player, Chuck Hayes, a forward for the Houston Rockets, to wear its basketball shoes--including Li-Ning-Shaq products--at NBA games for the next two years.

Last year Li Ning inked the first deal between any Chinese sportswear company and a player in the NBA, Damon Jones of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Mr. Jones has endorsed a line of Li Ning's basketball shoes called Fei Jia (Flying Armor), which he wears during NBA games, and like Mr. O'Neal, he now occasionally travels to the mainland for special appearances. Mr. Jones was also featured in Li Ning's last major ad campaign in China. (See also "Shooting for the hearts of young Chinese," August 9, 2006)
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