WITH an increasingly sophisticated and wealthy customer base, Chinese consumer-goods makers are starting to pay attention to brand-building. The smartest are moving beyond simple product ads to marketing an entire lifestyle. In an echo of Nike"s famous"Just do it"?campaign, Li-Ning, the largest producer in China"s sportswear market, has just launched an advertising blitz under the mottos "Goodbye"?and"Anything is possible"? Costing 15m yuan ($1.8m), eight times the company"s usual ad spend, it taps into the Chinese belief that they can safely wave goodbye to their hard lives of the past, and that the future is filled with unlimited opportunities.
One of those opportunities, if you ask Wilson Xu, Li-Ning"s marketing manager, is a new-found freedom to seek a more balanced life. Putting it plainly, consumers should stop chasing academic and commercial success and get out more often to participate in more sport. Only around 15% of Chinese mainlanders aged 15-35 actively play a sport, compared with 50% in America. "Most Chinese people believe that success is about academic achievement and making money. They don"t care about their health,"?says Mr Xu.
The sophisticated ads, which feature ordinary people overcoming failure (one shows a boy who smiles despite hurting his hand skateboarding; another a girl kick-boxing and then a shot of her bandaged knuckles), are supposed to puncture the self-consciousness that keeps many Chinese on the sidelines unless they are already good at a given activity, says Kelvin Cheng, managing director of Leo Burnett Beijing, the agency behind the campaign. Mr Cheng says that the style is a new way of advertising for Chinese companies, which usually sell on price alone.
Of course, appealing to a new fad for spiritual well-being and for sports ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is also a good way to get modern Chinese consumers to part with their money. After years of focusing on cheap prices, Li-Ning, like many Chinese companies, has spent the past two years learning that branding pays. The company is investing around 10% of its 1 billion yuan revenues in marketing, compared with 5% two years ago, and the proportion is due to grow.
That investment, which includes hiring a foreign ad agency, has enabled Li-Ning to hold on to its leadership despite the encroachment of foreign firms. Li-Ning leads both America"s Nike, which has about 800m yuan in sales in mainland China, and Germany"s Adidas. The prospect of the Olympics is helping to expand the market by more than 25% a year. Mr Xu reckons the new branding campaign should enable Li-Ning to double the retail prices of its most expensive products (shoes) to around 1,000 yuan in a few years, roughly what Nike"s most expensive shoes cost now.
Will Chinese consumers continue to choose a home-grown brand over a glamorous foreign one such as Nike, which uses sports celebrities with global appeal to endorse its products? As China gains in self-confidence, they might. And Li-Ning understands the danger of relying too much on celebrities. Its founder was Li Ning, who won three gold medals for gymnastics in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but is now regarded as a bit pass by younger consumers. Mr Li"s days as a sporting hero may be over, but his brand may yet bring more glory.