NBA's Dwyane Wade signs with Li Ning

Updated: 2013-07-04 12:00

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily)

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 NBA's Dwyane Wade signs with Li Ning

Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade shows a T-shirt he received from a fan on Wednesday during a promotional event for Li Ning's Way of Wade sneakers in Beijing. Wade, who led the team to win the NBA Finals last month, is currently touring in China. Cui Meng / China Daily

NBA Superstar Dwyane Wade just kicked off a 10-day-long trip to China to promote the country's top sportswear outfitter, Li Ning Co. Wade opened his remarks in Mandarin commenting on his return to China at a press briefing held at company headquarters in Beijing on Wednesday.

Posting an annual loss last year, Li Ning is looking to give its brand a boost by recruiting Wade, who has some 3.4 million fans on Weibo - the Chinese twitter.

"Li Ning's products will be better known to consumers thanks to Wade," company founder and executive chairman Li Ning said at the event, according to Bloomberg news.

The company has 5.4 percent of China's sportswear market, and shows positive signs of the potential to revive and compete with Nike and Adidas. According to data from Euromonitor International, Nike accounts for about 12 percent and Adidas 11 percent of China's sportswear market.

Thanks to Chinese American hoops stars Jeremy Lin and former Houston Rocket player Yao Ming, basketball's popularity has been growing steadily in today's China. After two decades of NBA broadcasts in China, many stars - like Dwyane Wade - have become household names and can have a big impact on Chinese consumers.

"Only a few NBA athletes have global appeal - Michael Jordan being the most prominent," Brandlogic's Denis Riney told China Daily. "This move will give Dwayne Wade an opportunity to elevate his own personal brand and help the Li Ning brand improve its stature in China and possibly emerge onto the world stage."

Unlike some other high-profile NBA athletes, Dwayne Wade has largely remained free from scandal throughout his playing career, he said. "He is a positive role model that will be attractive to Chinese consumers who have a long love affair with the game of basketball," Riney said.

Branding consultant Ed Roach said Li Ning is turning to an American sports icon so they can start being seen as a world brand and not just a regional one.

"They've done their homework in China to determine if Wade would be a great fit," Roach said. "It's a good strategy, so long as Wade's values match Li Ning's."

Now they need to weave a brand story around the relationship and figure out how to include their audience in the mix, he added.

Over the past few years, Li Ning has been struggling to transform its image from a "sports product manufacturer" to a "lifestyle brand" - a migration many of the current clothing and sportswear manufactures in China have gone through as it has become more and more evident that price alone can't build consumer loyalty any more, said Martin Lindstrom, a Europe-based branding expert.

He said the key challenge Li Ning has had - and still seems to have - is the classic manufacturing syndrome, where a brand far too often is treated as a logo and rarely as a way to create a true emotional bond with its consumers.

"The recent sponsorship alliance with Dwyane Wade is a somewhat predictable next step for Li Ning, given the fact that numerous former Nike and Adidas executives currently are consulting with the organization - a strategy that helped grow the American and German brands into what they are today," Lindstrom said.

Because Li Ning is seen as a Chinese company by most Chinese, the mixing of American and Chinese values, in particular during a time when it seems that tensions between the two countries are rather high, the company should expect some backslash, he added.

(China Daily USA 07/04/2013 page2)