Nike builds awareness around Asian Games

Ads connect kids with celebrity athletes to make sports fun

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SHANGHAI--Nike’s marketing strategy in China has swung from inspirational messages based on international sports heroes like Michael Jordan or LeBron James to ads celebrating the triumphs of local athletes such as Wang Zhizhi. Nike's last campaign in the mainland, out last March, ignored professionals altogether in favor of marketing that young Chinese basketball player who brought to life its global "Just Do It" tagline.

Nike's latest campaign, only the second major effort from Wieden + Kennedy, Shanghai since winning the account from JWT late last year, takes the middle ground. In advertising that will debut just in time for the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, the U.S. sportswear giant will focus on four Nike-sponsored Chinese athletes who are expected to excel at the regional competition, as well as the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

Track-and-field star Liu Xiang has become a household name in China by winning gold medals at events like the Asian Games in Busan in 2002 and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Last July, he set a new world's record in the men’s 110-meter hurdle at the Athletissima Grand Prix in Lausanne, Switzerland. The charismatic athlete is a hit off the track as well, trailing only NBA Houston Rockets star Yao Ming in commercial endorsements. Besides Nike, he is sponsored by multinationals like Visa and Coca-Cola, as well as China Mobile and Chinese dairy brand Yili.

Tennis player Li Na is now the top-ranked Asian female player at No. 21, according to the Women's Tennis Association. Between 1999 and 2004, Ms. Li won 20 women's singles titles, including the first victory on the WTA Tour by a Chinese woman in 2004. This year at Wimbledon, she became the first Chinese woman to be seeded for entry into a Grand Slam tournament. Chen Tao, captain of the national football team, helped China win its first men's soccer title at an international multi-sports event last year.

The fourth athlete, Yi Jianlian, plays for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. Already sponsored by Nike and Coke, he has been dubbed “the next Yao Ming” by sports marketers in China, both for his basketball skills and marketing potential. He played at the Olympics in Athens and at the 2006 FIBA World Championship with the Chinese national basketball team. On Nov. 1, his club in Guangzhou announced Mr. Yi will enter the National Basketball Association’s draft in 2007.

While the campaign is centered on the mainland’s top athletes about to compete at a regional event, the ads will run in China and use real Chinese kids as well. The point is to link Nike not with specific sports, players or teams, but with sports in general in the minds of young Chinese new to the notion of playing sports for fun.

“The platform is to control sports in general, including the importance of exercise and as an ignition of the Olympics,” said Ginger Zhu, a Nike spokeswoman in Shanghai. “We think the Olympics is not a one-off event for China, it’s more of an opportunity to enhance the participation of Chinese people in sports.”

But it’s also a way to get Nike--the largest sportswear marketer in China but only by a slim margin--to connect its brand with the Olympics alongside Adidas. As usual, there is no official sportswear category at the highest international sponsorship level, the International Olympic Committee's The Olympic Partners program for the 2008 event. But the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games (BOCOG) broke with tradition and selected Adidas as its official sportswear partner.

Nike also faces tough competition from Li Ning, a strong local sportswear brand founded by China’s first Olympic hero and Anta, another well-known local brand that has stepped up its advertising in the past six months since hiring Nike’s old agency JWT.

So Nike is tapping into interest in the Asian Games “to give a platform for our commitment to kids participating in sports, a continuation of past efforts like talking about why sports are fun, which is not the usual perception of sports in China,” Ms. Zhu explained.

Most Chinese still view sports through the window of their Communist past, as a serious activity nurtured in secluded state-sponsored gymnasiums, the kind of environment that produced talents like Yao Ming. That view is changing, partly because of Nike and its rivals.

“We’re finding a new generation of kids and even Chinese athletes are using sports as form of creativity and self-expression,” said Ms. Zhu.

Nike is combining its relationship with some of China’s top athletes with young consumers in ads breaking Dec. 1 in China’s ten largest cities. The TV spot, cut in 60”, 30” and two 15” versions, shows Mr. Liu competing in a race. Each time he goes over a hurdle, the spot cuts to an action that mimes his movement--a skateboarder doing a jump, a leaping tennis player, or girls jumping rope.

The spot was created by Wieden’s Shanghai office and directed by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, director of films such as "The Constant Gardener" and "City of God." The spot’s music track was written by Cui Jian, known as the father of rock-and-roll music in China.

Ads are also running in print and outdoor media, including one stand-out execution--total coverage of a subway stop in Guangzhou on an island where the city is grouping all the city’s universities. The station feeds all the schools, so more than 100,000 students pass through it, a figure that will double by next year. WPP Group’s outdoor media agency Portland secured a two-year contract for the entire site late last year.

Since last spring, the station has displayed creative for the “Just Do It” campaign introduced last spring but early this week, Portland and GroupM’s MindShare division, Nike’s media agency in China, plastered the site with the new campaign.

“It’s fantastic, this is the first time we have updated it since last May and it does the whole place justice more than before. The space envelopes you in the whole creative idea,” said Alistair Lennie, MindShare’s planning director in Shanghai.

The campaign also has a large digital component, including a web site (Nike.com.cn) with information about all four athletes and a forum in which kids can interact, share experiences and upload photos to the site.

The internet is the “heartbeat” of the campaign, according to Frank Hahn, creative director of Wieden+Kennedy in Shanghai. “Chinese kids use it so much that it’s more important to use that domain to communicate with them, far more than TV or print. The digital approach is always very important for any Nike campaign in China.”

In this case, Nike used it to “dimensionalize” the athletes, “to take away the distance between them and Chinese kids. We interviewed the athletes and talked to their parents, coaches, neighbors, and friends, then placed a series of interviews on the site, alongside additional facts about their achievements, records, and their biggest letdowns. We have the complete story about these four athletes,” added Mr. Hahn.

(To read about Nike's first campaign of the year, see "Nike talks to Chinese kids on their terms," March 15, 2006.)
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