Li-Ning, the Beijing-based sports company started by the Chinese Olympic medal-winning gymnast of the same name, is pushing into the U.S. market- backyard of Nike -using digital media, e-commerce and event marketing. Eschewing retail channels, the company is only selling its sneakers and apparel online, primarily through its dedicated e-commerce site. Will that be enough?
The national launch campaign is the work of Digital Li-Ning, the company’s year-old joint venture with Chicago-based marketing firm Acquity Group. Digital Li-Ning is serving as the U.S. division of the parent company.
Anchoring the U.S. campaign is a new brand site, unveiled March 22, which features Li-Ning's NBA endorsers Baron Davis of the New York Knicks and Evan Turner of the Philadelphia 76ers. More endorsements will come from Olympics competitors such as sprinter Asafa Powell, pole vaulting champ Yelena Isinbayeva, and track and field jumper Christian Taylor. The site also includes marketing messages and links to Li-Ning's three-month-old e-commerce site. Its slogan: "Straight Out of New China."
"Our target consumers are New World thinkers," says Craig Heisner, VP of marketing, sales, and merchandise for Li-Ning. "They tend to be young and open-minded to international brands. They are also very digitally-oriented. Digital marketing and online commerce is very familiar to them."
To build brand awareness and generate buzz for the new brand site, the company crafted a teaser video, and since December 2011, has posted heavily on its Facebook page and Twitter account. In late fall Li-Ning had only about 1,000 Facebook likes; when the new site launched, it had accumulated about 50,000 likes, says Heisner.
Much of the social media marketing revolves around videos of the brand's athlete endorsers. For instance, a February 2012 promotional drawing for its "88" basketball shoes on Twitter and Facebook was linked to a video of Evan Turner trying on the new style. The promo generated 15,000 email addresses that were used to drum up sales, says Heisner. Branded videos of athletes, which run on YouTube and are touted on Facebook and Twitter, "are our lifeblood," says Heisner.
Events and microsites also feed the online buzz. For example, during the NBA All-Star game in Orlando in late February, Li-Ning hosted events including a basketball match between sneaker bloggers and basketball journalists. The company outfitted the players with custom uniforms that had their Twitter handles - instead of their names - printed on their backs. The game also had its own branded microsite.
In a Facebook promotion March 30 for a limited edition line of men's basketball shoes tied to the Chinese Year of the Dragon, heavy traffic to the brand's site caused it to crash. Several customers also complained the shoes only went up to size 12.
As one of the first Chinese consumer brands to venture into the U.S., the company is trying to leverage its rich Chinese culture, marking its brand site with Chinese symbols. The goal is to distance the products' design and quality from consumers' perception of cheap, made-in-China goods. Explained Heisner, "There is lots of intrigue with China now and a certain mystique around the country. We're not worried about those with closed minds about what Chinese products represent."
The brand's connection to what it calls "New China" also makes it stand out in a crowded industry dominated by Nike and in a marketplace where expensive TV and print ad campaigns are the norm. "It's no coincidence in the U.S., where we are positioning ourselves as a New World global brand, that we are depending on New World [digital] channels" to get the message out and sell products, Heisner said.
This story was originally published on April 6, 2012, and comes in at No. 5 on our countdown of the 10 most popular ClickZ news stories of 2012. As ClickZ looks back over the past year, we're celebrating the best of 2012, as determined by our readers. Enjoy!
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.
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