Li-Ning, Beijing

Li-Ning taps into Chinese youth culture to regain the lead in its own local sporting goods market.
Posted November 8, 2010
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When the 2008 Olympics were held in Beijing, the Chinese Olympic Committee chose former gold medal-winning gymnast Li Ning for the significant honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies. Li had won six medals at the 1984 games in Los Angeles and capitalized on that success to start a sporting goods apparel company called Li-Ning Co. Ltd. (Beijing).

But while the Chinese sporting goods market has been growing about 25 percent a year during the past decade, the companies leading that surge have been overseas players, like Nike and Adidas.

“True, the 2008 Olympics brought the worldwide sports stage to China,” says Jay Li, general manager of Li-Ning Intl. “But before that, so did television and the Internet. The current generation has grown up watching professional American basketball. To them, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant are bigger names in China than Yao Ming [the Chinese 7-footer playing for the Houston Rockets]. They see Li-Ning as their parents’ brand.”

So Li-Ning hired Ziba Design (Portland, Ore.) to help develop a branding and retail strategy. The first hurdle: to crack the culture code in China, especially among the 15-to-30-year-old generation. “We undertook a deep and immersive brand archaeology,” says Jeremy Kaye, creative director and brand strategist at Ziba Design. “We toured China and looked at people’s feet. The ones wearing Li-Ning shoes were primarily in their fifties and sixties.”

To understand the sought-after youth market, Kaye and a team of more than 23 Ziba employees together spent a year in the field in China, speaking to kids, visiting their homes, even, he says, accompanying them on their dates. “We call them the Sunshine Generation,” Kaye says. “They’re the first generation to experience the growth in education, business, economic reforms, personal wealth. They’re sunny and optimistic, believe anything is possible and, perhaps most important, have tremendous pride in whatever is authentically Chinese.”

Kaye also found that Chinese youth view sports as enjoyable rather than competitive. “To the Chinese youth, sports is an egalitarian pastime, teamwork, the manifestation of joy,” says Kaye. “Nike represents success for the star athlete. Li-Ning represents sports for everyone.”

“Western brands try to teach the Chinese consumer whom to adore,” says Jay Li. “But we know this isn’t consistent with the Chinese culture. We understand that Eastern mentality values the process, enjoys the journey.”

Kaye notes that Chinese tend to shop as a social pastime, sometimes as often as six times a week and typically in groups of friends or family. So Li-Ning stores are designed to simplify and clarify the message with architectural and visual cues familiar to the Chinese consumer. Wooden fins and panels dropped from the ceiling create sequential zones, like the gateways in a Chinese garden, but also contain marketing collateral.

Because 97 percent of Li-Ning’s stores in China are owned and run by franchisees, it’s the in-store graphics package that establishes the brand consistencies. Instead of Western sports apparel images that feature endorsements by the likes of Kevin Garnett, David Beckham and Roger Federer, Li-Ning graphics show everyday youngsters in everyday athletic situations that, says Kaye, “remind them of themselves.”

Ziba has developed three prototype stores, depending on the size of the market. In Tianjin, a city of 12 million about two hours from Beijing, it has built a 3000-square-foot, two-level store on a pedestrian shopping street with a wall of visual merchandising that leads people up to the second floor. In Beijing, it has built a more traditional 1615-square-foot mall store.

The ultimate goal is to make Li-Ning a global brand with stores around the world. “But first,” says Jay Li, “we need to get it right on our home court.” 

For more on Li-Ning's athletic career and how China's "Prince of Gymnastics" created a sports brand that is authentically Chinese, click here.


Li-Ning Co. Ltd., Beijing

Ziba Design, Portland, Ore.
Outside Design Consultant
Kan & Lau, Hong Kong (environmental graphics)

Fixture Manufacturing:
idX, Shanghai

Store Construction & General Contractor:
JiCheng, Beijing
Lighting Design
Philips, Shanghai

Interior Architecture and Fixture Design:
Purge Ltd., Hong Kong