Whilst Li-Ning reached $1 Billion in sales in 2009, the 20-year-old company still faces strong competition from the shoe giants of Nike and Adidas at home. A key component to the success of those rivals is the perception that they are indeed global brands. “We don't have as strong a brand as Nike and Adidas”, says Abel Wu, Director of Li-Ning's footwear division.”Our thinking is that as a local brand, we need to have an international image.” Which is an interesting strategy in itself in order to defend their local share. So they are now set to ramp up their global perceptions by turning their sights towards the most lucrative and competitive shoe market in the world, the US.
Successful Asian brands pushing in to new fertile territory is nothing new, but what's interesting about Li-Ning's US launch is the passive-aggressive nature in which they are going about doing things.
When it comes to the language they speak Li-Ning are very careful about their intent and are quick to highlight their own relative small size compared to Nike/Adidas. They are very keen to downplay their aspirations of the US launch and quick to articulate that they are not one of the big players, and they are not big enough to be a Challenger to the likes of Nike. “We don't pose a threat to the big guys. We are simply playing our own game and hoping for some small success in the United States” says Jay Li, the General Manager of Li-Ning.
However, their actions reveal a different, and altogether more aggressive, strategy.
The launch into the US saw Li-Ning open their very first retail location in Portland's Pearl District, the hometown of the biggest fish of them all – Nike. And not just in the same town, but less than a mile from Nike's flagship store. Li-Ning's spoken rationale for the launch was that “Portland is the epicentre of athletic footwear and it is a great testing ground for us to introduce the brand and ease into our international presence and it is ideally suited to be close to our global headquarters in Beijing”… of course it is. Whilst they haven't issued a statement of intent, they certainly have delivered an 'action of intent'. Very reminiscent of Diesel launching into the US and putting their very first store across the road from Levi's flagship store in NY.
It is interesting to watch this passive-aggressive nature play out in terms of the celebrities they choose to partner with in the US. They have avoided the clean cut, aspirational all-American basketballers (are there any left anyway?), and have decided that Shaq O'Neil and more recently Baron Davis are the most appropriate incarnations of their brand. These are two very dominant and confronting players in the NBA who embody aggressive intent on the brand's behalf. Baron Davis has just recently released the impending sounding 'Doom Shoe' for Li-Ning.
This is not the first time that Li-Ning have delivered a declaration of intent through actions and not words -you'll be familiar with their antics during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
Prior to the opening ceremony the brand was relatively unknown outside of China. That was until Li-Ning, the brands founder, namesake and gold medal-winning gymnast was selected at the 11th hour to be hoisted into the Bird's Nest stadium to light the Olympic flame. Despite Adidas being the official sponsor of the Olympics, it was of course Li-Ning shoes being carried aloft the Bird's Nest in front of hundreds of millions of live viewers.
Adidas may have paid the millions of Pounds to be an official sponsor of the games, but it was Li-Ning who reaped the rewards with a 6pc rise in the company's share price and a clear signal to the world that Li-Ning has arrived. The media commented that whilst “Adidas has Yao Ming and Nike has Yi Jianlian [Chinese basketball stars], Li-Ning has China”.
So I find this tension between words of intent and actions of intent very interesting – the idea that a brand can deliberately use such passive language when outlining its objectives with words, but reveal such an aggressive intent when it comes to actions. When it comes to effective communication we know that talking the talk is not enough, we know it's important to back up the words with action. But isn't it important that what a brand says is consistent with what it does? Isn't it important that actions confirm rather than contradict the spoken intent?
Li-Ning is fighting an epic battle with the giants of the sporting world and clearly recognises that language and action can be used together as equally important and yet very different weapons. The polite, respectful, even humble language acts like a Trojan Horse that allows Li-Ning the Challenger to plan and implement its attack.
Brett Donahay, eatbigfish, London