Nike turns up the heat in China

'Dare to Do' campaign features six Chinese Olympic athletes

By Published on .

SHANGHAI -- The battle for supremacy of China’s sportswear market just got a little hotter.

One of the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday this month, Nike kicked off the latest phase of its “Just Do It” campaign with high-energy ads connecting its brand with some of China’s top Olympic athletes.

Built around the tagline, “Fang Dan Zuo,” which literally translates, “release your guts to do,” but means “Dare to do,” the campaign features six elite Chinese athletes who will be competing on the world stage in 2008 -- hurdler Liu Xiang, basketball player Yi Jianlian, tennis player Li Na, marathoner Zhou Chunxiu, swimmer Wu Peng and BMX rider Ma Liyun.

With Nike athletes making the journey towards the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the eyes of the young people of China will be following them. They embody Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan and challenge Chinese youth to dream big and have the courage to follow that dream, said Carol Chen, Nike’s marketing director, China in Shanghai. “This campaign is not only about following your sporting heroes as they make their way toward Beijing, but we want the youth of China to create their own journeys through being active and participating in sports.”

Sponsoring athletes, not Olympics
Although aimed at trendsetting teens and young adults in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou as well as China’s provincial capitals, the campaign plays on strong interest in the Olympics among all Chinese, fervent patriots when it comes to local athletes.

Unlike its arch-rival Adidas, Nike is not an official sponsor of the games in Beijing, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. sportswear giant from turning the Olympics into a battleground. Nike sponsors 22 of the 28 Chinese sports federations participating in Olympic games, so many of China’s athletes competing in Beijing this August will be sporting Nike’s apparel and shoes.

It also has a close relationship with many of the country’s key athletes, such as Mr. Liu, an Olympic Gold medalist at the 2004 games in Athens, the reigning world record holder in the 110 meter hurdles and unquestionably one of the biggest celebrities in China.

Home to more than 150 million teenagers and young adults, China is a top global market for sportswear brands in terms of revenue. Sales for Nike and Adidas may top $1 billion this year, partly due to an increased interest in sports during an Olympic year. Determined to capitalize on this one-time opportunity, both companies are blanketing the country’s airwaves, streets and online communities with advertising,

Locals dominate lower-tier cities
It’s not a two-way race, however. Li Ning Co., founded by and named for China’s first Olympic celebrity, holds a distant third-place ranking in China’s sportswear market. But it is attracting world-class designers, particularly to upgrade its strong apparel division, and it has a strong brand awareness and distribution network in China’s third- and fourth-tier markets.

These aren't small markets. Nearly all have populations greater than 1 million, and many are more than 5 million. Control of those cities will be an important factor as China’s sportswear market develops.

Another local brand, Anta, which means "safe step" in Chinese, falls in fourth place overall, but it surpasses Li Ning in shoe sales and has invested heavily in research and development. It created a state-of-the-art "shoe lab" in 2005, which has collected foot measurements and other data about hundreds of Chinese professional athletes, many of whom wear shoes specially tailored for them by Anta.

It also set up design centers in Beijing, Guangzhou, Jinjiang and Seoul, staffed with several Japanese designers who worked for Reebok in China until Adidas acquired that company. Connections with Korea and Japan are vital for fashion brands, because both countries are breeding grounds for youth trends across Asia, including China.

In China’s tier-one cities, meanwhile, Nike and Adidas face pressure from smaller brands that are perceived as either more hip, such as Puma, or more high-tech, like Japan’s Mizuno brand.

Saluting local heroes
Faced with pressure from all corners, Nike has adopted its own "Just Do It" attitude in its latest campaign, opting for bold, brash, colorful advertising.

The media rollout includes a major retail presentation, a national print campaign, LED displays in five markets and a nationally broadcast TV spot, created with 60" and 30" versions. The campaign will also run online at and popular portal sites, focused on sports and youth, including a dedicated channel on QQ, a youth portal with tens of millions of users through its popular instant-messaging service. WPP Group's MindShare handles Nike's media planning and buying in China.

Set to David Bowie's 1977 hit "Heroes," the commercial highlights the prowess of all six athletes as well as some Chinese youth. It ends with Mr. Liu challenging the kids, "It's just a game, and you decide how to play."

With this statement, said Ginger Zhu in Shanghai, Nike PR director in China. "Mr. Liu challenges Chinese youth to choose their own path. Competing takes dedication, bravery and risk and what sets athletes apart is their attitude and individual commitment."

Nike's creative strategy "uses the Olympics as a platform to show how athletes can inspire kids, but in a peer-to-peer style, not by putting them on a pedestal," said Kel Hook, managing director of Wieden & Kennedy in Shanghai, which created the campaign. "We want to inspire kids in China to see the Olympic spark in themselves through sports."

Remembering 1984
Alongside the campaign, Nike created a 26-minute documentary film about Chinese athletes. Called “Chong” (Dare), it recounts the journey of high-jump world-record holder, Zhu Jianhua, to Los Angeles in 1984, when China sent a national team to the Olympics for the first time.

The film has vintage footage and interviews with Chinese athletes attending the Olympics that year, including Mr. Zhu and pistol shooter Xu Haifeng, who captured China’s first gold medal in Los Angeles, as well as viewpoints from contemporary athletes.

“His story is very relevant to today’s generation, daring to try to achieve something,” said Mr. Hook. “It’s also the first time Nike has produced a content piece like this on a national scale in China.”

Shot by New York-based Radical Media and produced by Wieden & Kennedy, the film made its debut on China Central Television’s news channel during the Lunar New Year holiday. Nike is offering the film free to provincial and local stations, and next month it expects to launch it online at QQ. It is giving DVDs of the documentary to consumers at select stores selling a retro collection of shoes and apparel that Nike created alongside the film. The DVD is packaged with a music CD with hits from the early 1980s.

Recalling styles and colors popular in 1984 -- before most of its target market was born -- the collection includes shoes such as the high-cut Dunk Trainer, which has red and yellow stripes, topped by a blue panel of gold stars and laces with gold specks. The 1984-themed products were created for the Chinese market but also will be sold in Hong Kong, Taiwan and some Southeast Asian markets.
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