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Li Ning Gains Branding Opportunity at the Rio Olympics

Posted By: SGK August 12, 2016

Every four years, the Olympics offer a marketing bonanza for sportswear companies to make huge investments in hopes to cash in on the excitement of the games. Our Steve McGinnes, featured on BBC World News, describes Li Ning’s impact on the retail-sporting world with its strategy of guerrilla marketing -- focusing on emerging markets.

Watch the entire interview here: Li Ning Gains Branding Opportunity at the Rio Olympics  

Li Ning is the Chinese Olympian gymnast who lit the cauldron in the 2008 Olympic games and is the founder of sportswear company, Li Ning. The brand Li Ning became popular in the Beijing Olympics because of what they call guerilla marketing – basically stealing the thunder away from the main sponsor, Adidas.

Nobody knew who he was before, but with that perfect piece of placement (lighting the torch) suddenly he was the talk of the whole Olympics. Since then, he managed to build on that popularity and is now going up against global brands like Nike, and is really a brand to watch.

He was an Olympic hero in China and now Li Ning has really crossed many markets around the world. In the Rio games, Li Ning is sponsoring the kit of the Indian team, which is very smart move, similarly to what they’ve done.

They haven’t tried to go after the large sponsorship piece -- for instance sponsoring the large teams -- but what they’re doing is targeting the Indian teams, the Pilipino teams, and Malaysia. They’re backing the aerobatics teams, basketball teams, and badminton teams, which are very popular sports in those markets, and by doing so; they’re being disruptive by not playing by the status quo. Li Ning is looking at the demographic who can afford a pair of running shoes, in a demographic where there happens to be a billion of people.

And of course, you have the Asia Pacific region making up about two-thirds of the global competition, but not many of these teams win medals in the Olympics. While the medals don’t directly sell running shoes, what he’s looking at is building a global brand. A number of sports personalities have turned that into a celebrity role as endorsers, as sponsors, but to actually turn this into a successful retail brand – and this is one of the first brands that has truly grown up online, the majority of the sales are digital especially his heartland of China – this is a phenomenal success from a very smart man.

So is this the edge right now of the Li Ning brand over Adidas, Nike, Under Armour, or Puma?

“I think there is a shifting paradigm. I think Li Ning is about to turn from being a Chinese brand looking globally, to being a global brand with a Chinese heritage. I think the Adidas’ and Nike’s, whilst they don’t need to lose much sleep tonight, should certainly be looking over their shoulders about the way this guy is gaining to much ground,” says Steve McGinnes.

If you were to advise Li Ning right now about positioning the brand even further, and raising the ante, what would you tell them?

“Lifestyle. There’s a huge cluster between sports brands and to lifestyle brands. Nike, Adidas, Puma, have their own lifestyle range attached to the brand but slightly separate from it. That’s where I believe he can move into. There’s a very strong attachment in his home country, he’s appealing very clearly to a large demographic, and smaller entry-point products that allow the people in these less disposable-income markets to buy into that brand,” says Steve McGinnes.

Read more: Steve McGinnes Talks Sports Sponsorships in Asia with BBC World News