The three-on-three tournament, which even arch rivals at adidas in China privately conceded was “pretty cool,” combined the popularity of basketball and hip hop music in the mainland with the brazen confidence of Beijing residents plus a splash of Chinese culture.
The game revolved around nine “gates,” as the entrances to China’s ancient walled cities are called. In this case, the nine gates in the tournament hark back to the real city limits of old Beijing.
Dozens of competitions were held around the nine gates between May 5-7, involving over 5,300 teenagers from 1,340 Beijing teams. Nine teams won the right to represent the gate in their residential neighborhood at the finals on May 13.
The size of the event set a record for outdoor basketball tournaments in Beijing, and the location of the final showdown was unique. The winners of the individual gates advanced to the semifinals and ultimately a handful of players competed in the finals at the Hall of Ancestral Worship, part of the Taimiao Temple complex of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where emperors in ancient China once offered sacrifices to their ancestors.
"Basketball is Nike's lifeblood and you can't get more connected to China than what we've done here. Playing against such a historical backdrop really inspired the participants," said Ed Elworthy, Nike's Shanghai-based brand communication director.
Not that they needed much encouragement, he added. "Beijingers think of themselves as the kings of China. We wanted to celebrate that attitude and the Beijing style of playing basketball, called baqi, an inherent superiority that goes with character of the city. There is a lot of confidence in how they play. These kids are the young masters of China, and they know it."
Only a couple of minor marketing events have been held in the Forbidden City until now in this fiercely nationalistic country. To untangle the bureaucratic red tape and win the necessary approvals, Nike turned to Dynamic Marketing Group (DMG), an independent agency in China. DMG took part in the pitch for Nike's creative business in China in late 2005, but lost to Wieden+Kennedy, Shanghai.
Although DMG didn't win, "we saw they could help us out, particularly with events like this one," said Mr. Elworthy. Dan Mintz, the agency's chief creative officer and a founding partner, "is very well connected," he said slowly, to emphasize the importance of personal relationships, or guanxi, in China's business environment.
“It’s pop-culture-meets-ancient-turf-wars as the kids of Beijing stand behind their gate, one of the original nine gates along modern-day Beijing’s second ring road,” said Mr. Mintz. “The tournament gives Chinese something to stand for, they represent actual turf, their own part of town and a chance to be the local gate master. So it’s kind of a West Side Story idea, but one that’s all about Beijing.”
Nike also tapped its main agency's creative team for pre-tournament marketing. Wieden+Kennedy created five stylish ads featuring real basketball players in artful poses and colorful outfits that pay homage to imperial Chinese robes and mythical figures like the Monkey King with tongue-in-cheek playfulness. The ads ran in newspapers and magazines in Beijing as well as posters throughout the city in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
Additional posters representing the theme of each gate, created by DMG but based on Wieden's ads, decorated the gates and basketball courts around the city, playfully depicting their original use, such as admitting wagons carrying water, firewood and food into the city, or sending troops into battle.
Nike had to replace the posters up to 30 times at some gates, "because kids kept tearing them down to take them home," said Mr. Elworthy.
Wieden also created a video for a hip-hop song and music video called “Beijing Basketball,” that played in the background during the last stage of the challenge, and DVDs were inserted into some magazines with the ads. The song's lyrics reflect the city’s cocky attitude: “Give me a basketball/I will bring you to a new era/I just want to compete with you/attack you above your head/and force you to the corner/No matter what you want to do/I will play you one-on-one/Even if you are number 1/I will destroy your records.” The sportswear company also developed a web site with a basketball video game where surfers could choose to play on various themed courts.
While Nike has organized street basketball competitions in cities all over the world, including one in Beijing in 2001, the latest tournament was a one-off event on a larger scale than anything Nike has organized so far in China, a market worth $750 million in sales this year for the U.S. company.
There are no plans to repeat the concept in other cities, but "we haven't ruled it out," said Gerry Erasme, basketball brand initiative director. The Nike veteran relocated from the U.S. to Shanghai last year, a move that demonstrates how important China is becoming to Nike's bottom line. "We'll do more tournaments in China, but I'm not sure when and where. We want to keep our image fresh with new ideas."