SHANGHAI (AdAge.com) -- To interact with young Chinese on their own terms, Nike has turned its back on American basketball stars Michael Jordan and LeBron James and even Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, at least for a while.
An ad campaign launched this month, Nike's first since moving its creative account in China to Wieden & Kennedy from JWT last year, does not feature famous athletes or celebrities, and it has no "you should ..." or "try this ..." messages.
Instead, marketing salutes young Chinese who have overcome obstacles to play sports such as basketball, skateboarding and cycling, to bring to life its "Just Do It" tagline. Kids can share personal histories with peers, either through one of Nike's 1,600 retail outlets (with 1.5 new sites opening every day in China) or online, a long-term initiative that will likely attract hundreds of thousands of submissions.
Nothing to learn from West
"China's younger generation is in the midst of forming its own style, mixing together Chinese elements and influences they've absorbed from the West, but they don't think they need to learn from the West. Nike realized this and wants to be a part of this new generation, rather than telling them what to do," said Jesse Lin, Wieden's managing director in Shanghai.
Internet-savvy kids can submit their own stories on the site and also watch five 3-4 minute films created by Wieden, colorful, energetic montages of young Chinese playing sports in recognizable, often gritty locales. Condensed 60, 30 and 15" versions of the films are running as TV spots. In one execution, for instance, a soccer player's parents forbade him to play his favorite sport as a sickly young boy for health reasons. He played soccer anyway behind their backs, and the exercise ultimately helped him regain his health.
The approach is a major shift away from Nike's traditional marketing platform of appealing to Chinese youth through inspirational messages from sports heroes -- a tactic that hasn't always worked anyway.
An early Nike ad in China, for example, featured one of the country's best basketball players, Wang Zhizhi, "based on an American mentality about how to create a local hero," said Brook Larmer, Shanghai-based author of Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar.
But the ad fell flat with local consumers, because Chinese, longtime fans of NBA games on television, preferred to draw inspiration from the best players in the world, rather than a local athlete who hadn't yet proved he could compete against the best basketball stars.
"Nike, and the NBA, realized they would have to get someone from the U.S. [into local advertising] to get the sportswear market to explode in China," recalled Mr. Lamar.
Ads featuring American basketball stars can also backfire, as Nike learned in late 2004, with its global "Chamber of Fear" spot starring LeBron James defeating a computer-generated Kung Fu master. The ad was banned following vocal criticism from Chinese consumers that it offended the country's cultural heritage and dignity.
Platform for self-expression
Ads featuring Mr. James and other sports stars will return to Nike's advertising later this year, said Ginger Zhu, Nike's PR director for China in Shanghai. But the current initiative "gives kids a platform to express themselves and their passion for sports," rather than just speaking to them through advertising.
The Beaverton, Ore.-based company's core consumers in China "are kids, hundreds of thousands of whom share our values, that everyone is an athlete. They do aspire to be like top athletes such as LeBron James, but in this campaign, they'll find a lot of kids the same age, sharing the same pressures, who find happiness playing the same sports," she added. "It's too early to predict how successful this campaign will be, but so far we've had quite positive feedback."
The interactive nature of the two-month campaign reflects the influence of the Internet in China, home to 110 million Web users, 70% of whom are under age 30, and the growing power of blogs in that market as a mechanism for self-expression.
Creative led by John Jay
The stylish nature of the campaign also taps into Nike's status as one of China's coolest foreign brands. Maintaining its hip lifestyle status is particularly important in China, one of Nike's largest markets in Asia/Pacific along with Japan. Although incomes are much lower in China compared to Western countries, a pair of Nike shoes in China still costs $100, more than twice the price of shoes marketed by Li Ning, a strong local rival.
Ironically, the driving force behind one of Nike's most localized marketing efforts in recent history is a Chinese-American who does not live in China -- Wieden & Kennedy's executive creative director, John Jay, based at the agency's headquarters in Portland, Ore.
Although raised in the U.S., Mr. Jay has a long association both with Nike and Asia. He joined Wieden in 1993 as a creative director on Nike and before he returned to the U.S. in late 2004, he spent five years overseeing creative at the agency's office in Tokyo, a city with significant influence on youth trends in China and the rest of Asia. When Wieden & Kennedy won Nike's creative business in China last November, the appointment was contingent on Mr. Jay's promise to remain involved with its all-important business in China, confirmed Ms. Zhu.
"He has made a personal commitment to be involved here and provide his in-depth knowledge about Nike to the China team. but locals are also working on our advertising. We are very satisfied with the agency team's foreign expertise and local talent," she said.