For sports apparel brands, the Olympics are arguably the most important stage for marketing. So how did the sports marketers fare with the Chinese market in these Olympics? Here’s a look at how things played out for Adidas, Li-Ning, Nike, Puma and Speedo.
Adidas reportedly shelled out 70 million euros to be an official Olympic sponsor. Adidas gear was also all over Olympians, great for television exposure. But aside from shoes and uniforms, Adidas wasn’t particularly visible in Olympic venues. It had no special presence on the Olympic Green, but its beautiful flagship store in Sanlitun near the Workers’ Stadium and Workers’ Gymnasium saw lots of foot traffic.
Its Olympic ad campaign, though beautifully designed and fitting in concept (“Together in 2008, Impossible is Nothing”), came up short in the personnel categories. That campaign had four primary faces, in sports that are very popular in China–diver Hu Jia, footballer Zheng Zhi, basketball player Sui Feifei and a few women’s volleyball players. Hu pulled out due to injury, Zheng and the men’s football team had an embarrassing performance and Sui Feifei was only sixth in scoring on Team China. The women’s volleyball team played strong in a very tough field, but in the end only came through with the minimum result acceptable to the hometown fans, a bronze medal.
China’s biggest sports apparel brand had the biggest marketing coup of the games—its founder, Li Ning, carrying the Olympic flame on a three-minute slow-motion run to the top of the Bird’s Nest, where he lit the Olympic cauldron. The company’s stock went up the next day, and Li Ning will always have his stamp on what seems to be an especially important part of the Olympics to Chinese fans.
Li Ning also had its name on the uniforms of China’s diving and table tennis teams, who delivered dominant performances, as well as the Spanish men’s national basketball team, which gave Team USA a tough match before losing in the gold medal game.
Nike’s two biggest bets on Chinese athletes were Yi Jianlian and Liu Xiang. Yi was solid but not explosive, averaging 9 points a game. The Chinese national team, wearing Nike jerseys, didn’t really exceed expectations, but certainly didn’t come up short, making it to the quarterfinals before losing to Lithuania. But Chinese fans were more excited about catching a glimpse of Team USA, who were also sporting Nike’s hot new jersey, available in stores all over Beijing.
Nike had to deal with the toughest spin job of any Olympic marketer this year—how to salvage its investment in China’s biggest sports star, Liu Xiang, when he didn’t even compete in the games. Nike’s immediate answer–a full-page ad celebrating the love of sport even in defeat–succeeded in becoming part of the stream of catharsis after Liu bowed out. But Nike got some negative publicity for its efforts to hunt down netizens who alleged that the shoe company had coerced Liu to drop out rather than lose to Robles.
Liu and Yi weren’t the only athletes that Nike put is name behind. It was all over China’s teams, and ready with full-page ads in China Daily and front-page ads in Titan sports news when any of its athletes won a medal or had a strong performance. Swimmer Zhang Lin (silver medalist), boxer Zou Shiming (gold medalist) and beach volleyball duo Tian Jia and Wang Fei (silver medalists) were just a few of the lower-profile high-achieving athletes that Nike celebrated in its Olympic campaign.
Dollar for dollar, Puma might have gotten the most of its Olympic investment. Its hopes ran on two spiked shoes– those of sprinter Usain Bolt, who loped across the finish line to set the 100-meter dash world record. China loves a winner, and Bolt and the dominant Jamaican team were very well-received in Beijing. Jacques Rogge can complain all he wants, but most Chinese don’t mind a guy who’s willing to revel in his moment.
If you weren’t wearing a Speedo LZR Racer in this Olympics, you might as well never leave the Water Cube’s warm-up pool. Nine out of every 10 swimming gold medals went to LZR wearers. The only complaint that people had about the LZR was that it made swimmers too fast, world records too common. The suit was considered such an integral part of success that Nike agreed to let its swimmers wear LZRs instead of Nike suits. Speedo doesn’t have a big presence at Chinese sports retailers—swimwear here tends to be generic instead of branded—but China, along with the rest of the world, has no choice but to see Speedo as the leader in swimwear technology.
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