Will Li Ning finally make its great leap forward?

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Will Li Ning Finally Make its Great Leap Forward?
Will Li Ning Finally Make its Great Leap Forward?

For Chinese gymnastic legend Li Ning and his athletic wear brand, earning the approval of sneaker fans in the United States is essential to long-term growth. The plan: Launch a multichannel marketing strategy designed to win over urban males through events and social media campaigns.

When gymnast-turned-entrepreneur Li said in an August 22 financial release that his company, Li Ning Company Limited, had shown a “relatively large degree of decline,” the outlook was glum. During the first six months of 2012, the Olympic gold-medal-winner's athletic wear company endured a 59% decline in operating profit and closed around 1,200 under-performing stores in its home market of China.

At the London Olympic Games, Li Ning looked forward to a bump in awareness akin to the one the company had gotten at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but endorser Liu Xian, a top hurdler, tore his Achilles and didn't compete. Worse, the the Li Ning-clad Chinese basketball team lost all its games (Spanish and Argentinian teams wearing Li Ning fared better).

“The Olympics were a great way for us to gain exposure and market share in those countries, but getting established in the U.S. is definitely a huge part of Li Ning's future,” says Matt Lane, the digital marketing manager of Acquity, the Chicago agency that handles Li Ning's U.S. e-commerce and digital marketing programs. “Li Ning is looking to make a big splash here.”

That splash, aimed squarely at youthful male basketball players and serious “sneaker heads” who have been collecting basketball shoes since Air Jordans hit the courts, consists entirely of events and social media outreach. Stores are not a consumer touchpoint for Li Ning in the U.S., though it has one flagship near its Portland, OR, headquarters. Stateside, it's all e-commerce for the Chinese brand. “It's a two- to three-year plan to get into the retail environment by taking our blows on the Internet,” Lane says.

Red Bull's King of the Rock one-on-one basketball tournament is the lead theme of Li Ning's marketing program through summer. Legendary among ballers, the tourney consists of several regional competitions, culminating in 64 finalists battling it out on Alcatraz Island on the fourth weekend of September. King of the Rock is one of many customer-targeted associations Li Ning will be pounding on social media in coming years. The goal: street cred.

“Those ballers are looking for something fresh and new. They're passionate about the product. Sneaker heads are getting pretty excited about it, as well. They want to wear something no one else has,” says Ray Grady, Acquity EVP and general manager of Li Ning USA. “When they get the Li Ning sneaker, they want to tell their friends about it. They write about it and post pictures of it on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook."

Li Ning has brought in the social engagement platform Moontoast, known for social media-based games and sweepstakes, to bolster its efforts in coming months. Grady notes that a significant digital campaign is currently being hatched, but would not divulge details.

“At this point, the goal is not about revenue, it's about increasing brand awareness,” he says. "We want the sneaker customer to know and appreciate this brand. It's...created by a sportsman, and that has a unique appeal.”

At presstime, rumors circulated through the sneaker trades that the Miami Heat's Dwayne Wade was about to leave Nike and the Air Jordan brand to become Li Ning's lead endorser.  If true, the bleak outlook expressed by sportsman Li Ning in his latest financial report could quickly get rosier.

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