McDonald's signs Yi Jianlian as spokesman

Basketball star dubbed China's next Yao Ming

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GUANGZHOU--McDonald’s Corp. has signed a sponsorship deal with one of China’s top up-and-coming athletes, Yi Jianlian, who plays for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.

As a McDonald's spokesman, Mr. Yi will be featured in McDonald’s marketing and communications, including TV spots, for an ongoing campaign to support beef consumption, that also emphasizes fitness and physical activity. Creative for the beef campaign is handled by Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide in Shanghai.

McDonald’s, which operates 780 restaurants in China, has been heavily promoting beef there for the past six months to boost hamburger sales to a nation of chicken lovers. It is also eager to cement its position as a healthy food company in China in case negative criticism aimed at the company overseas comes to China down the road.

The company already sponsors other celebrity sports figures in China, including Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, China's most famous athlete, and two award-winning divers, Guo Jingjing and Gao Min, but ihas joined other multinationals in the search for new talent who appeal to younger consumers.

“Sports, especially basketball, has increasingly become a passion point for Chinese people,” said Gary Rosen, McDonald’s VP-chief marketing & corporate affairs officer, China. And Mr. Yi is quickly moving into the spotlight.

Dubbed "the next Yao Ming" by sports marketers in China, the charismatic, seven-foot athlete is already sponsored by Nike and Coca-Cola, both for his basketball skills and his marketing potential. He played at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and at the 2006 FIBA World Championship with the Chinese national basketball team. Last November, his basketball club in Guangzhou, Guangdong Winnerway, revealed that Mr. Yi will enter the National Basketball Association's draft in 2007.

"He's a good young talent, and McDonald's is getting him while the price is right, he's not that famous yet but he will be. He's also lean and therefore a good fit for what McDonald’s is trying to say about its company and nutrition. He's also good-looking and already has quite a following among a lot of young woman in China," said a sports marketing expert in Beijing.

In an unrelated development, McDonald’s and China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), have opened that country’s first joint drive-thru restaurant and petrol station complex in Beijing. The two-story restaurant is situated in the capital’s Changpin district. McDonald’s opened its first drive-thru restaurant in China just over a year ago in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Since then, ten other restaurants have opened in Guangdong, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Hainan, Tianjin, Liaoning and Beijing.

Despite a renewed emphasis over the past two years on celebrity endorsements, opening drive-thrus and new products like breakfast items, which are expanding to all McDonald's Chinese restaurants this year, McDonald's is still the No. 2 restaurant chain in China behind KFC. The fried chicken unit of Yum Brands Inc. has more than 1,700 outlets in the mainland.
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