The defending champion of the 100-meter hurdles pulled out during a qualifying heat on Monday, Aug. 18.
His unexpected departure from the National Stadium--and the Olympic Games--sent the nation into shock and transformed the tone of the games for his sponsors, who scrambled for an appropriate response.
According to Forbes magazine, Liu Xiang made $17.5 million in 2007, and will earn at least that much this year, even though he's no longer competing in the Olympic Games. Mr. Liu endorses a wide range of Chinese and foreign brands, including Nike, Coca-Cola, Visa, Amway and Yili.
More than 22% of China's total TV audience watched CCTV's Olympic programs featuring Liu Xiang from Aug. 8 through Aug. 18, while 16.4% tuned into coverage that included Yao Ming, according to AGB Nielsen. Yao Ming is the only Chinese athlete who rivals the track star's fame in their home market.
The basketball star, who plays for the NBA's Houston Rockets, is also the only Chinese athlete who comes close to Mr. Liu's earnings from advertising.
Liu Xiang "has been exposed through at least twice as much airtime as basketball star Yao Ming and perhaps five times or more against the rest of China's stars," said Olympic marketing expert Greg Paull, a principal at R3 in Beijing.
Nike was the first out of the gate with a post-injury ad featuring Mr. Liu, but Yili, a major Chinese dairy, and Coca-Cola both issued statements assuring fans they will continue to back Liu Xiang.
"For us, working with Liu Xiang is a long-term relationship. We signed him up in 2003 before his big triumph [at the 2004 Olympic Games] in Athens and we will continue to work with him. This doesn't change anything, we'll stick with our marketing that's already out there," said Hong Kong-based Kenth Kaerhoeg, Coke's group communications director for Asia.
The big question isn't about marketers' support now, while sympathy and concern for his health are running high, but what will happen in the future. There are few big global track events ahead that Mr. Liu can use to launch a comeback.
Also, Mr. Paull noted, "most sponsors have already milked their value from Liu Xiang [and] were smart to employ a multi-celebrity strategy and not just rely on him."
Yili's advertising, for example, never focused exclusively on Liu Xiang but rather on a range of athletes as well as coaches and Chinese fans.
Its broad message "is about making people strong and making China strong," said Oliver Xu, managing director of JWT, Beijing, Yili's agency for corporate advertising. Yili also sponsors a popular female diver, Guo Jingjing, who already won a gold medal in Beijing.
Nike and Coke also sponsor China's other star athlete, Yao Ming. China's national basketball team didn't win any Olympic medals, but unlike Liu Xiang, Yao Ming wasn't expected to take home a gold. He will also remain a fixture on Chinese television through NBA games in the coming season.
When it comes to rehabilitating Liu Xiang's image, his current sponsors will probably take their cue from his fans, who may become unforgiving after the sympathy wears off.
"It will take a great deal of faith, given how he withdrew from the stadium, his facial expressions, kicking the wall, for companies to continue to invest in him," said a senior executive at a Chinese ad agency that works with marketers sponsoring Liu Xiang, who asked not to be identified.
"You can talk 'Nike spirit' as much as you want, but that's a little culturally tone-deaf. The reason Liu Xiang was so iconic is that he redefined what it means to be a Chinese person, much in the same way Yao Ming did. And Chinese are all about winning. Right now, his stock is way down. To switch all of a sudden to a 'root for a winning spirit' campaign strategy takes a lot of courage on the part of a brand."
But courage is what the Olympics are all about.
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