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Li Ning pulls off Olympic-sized Marketing Ambush

Posted by: Frederik Balfour on August 10, 2008

Of the four billion or so people watching the spectacular Olympics opening ceremony, its hard to imagine anyone being more nonplussed than Adidas chairman and CEO Herbert Hainer. Poor guy, sitting there in his air conditioned VIP box for the biggest show on earth when former Olympic champion Li Ning—and chairman of a rival sports company by the same name, took to the air in the most audacious torch lighting ceremony ever. Audacious, not because of the delightful derring-do performed by Li Ning hoisted high above the crowd on guy wires, but for what has to be the boldest case of ambush marketing ever pulled off on behalf of the eponymous sportwear company he founded. You just can’t buy that kind of publicity.

Yet just 24 hours before Li Ning took flight, Hainer told the Guardian Newspaper what a great investment the games sponsorship was turning out to be. Here’s what he said: “I fully expect our success story in China to continue because the visibility and excitement we will generate for our brands during the Olympic Games will create a halo effect sustaining the momentum of our group in this market well into the future.”

You have to think that Nike chairman Phil Knight must have bee secretly enjoying an olympic-sized bout of schadenfreude knowing that his company didn’t blow an estimated $80 million to sponsor the Games as Adidas did. Indeed, many multinational CEOs have questioned the value of Olympic tie-ups, and Lenovo and Kodak, who are both sponsors of these games, have decided to pull the plug on London 2012. See more about this on a story Reena Jana and I wrote last week.

Perhaps Hainer can take some small comfort in the fact that when Li Ning did his aerial moon walk he was wearing the Adidas official uniform, but we aren’t sure about the shoes.

Interestingly, Li Ning’s face has not been used in company campaigns for a couple of years. After all, it has been 24 years since he clinched his gold medals in Los Angeles, and Li Ning has tried to style itself as a young hip brand by inking endorsement deals with foreign athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, and creating edgy ad spots based on its “Anything is Possible” slogan. For more about how Li Ning is going toe-to-toe with Nike and Adidas, click here.

Li Ning is a public company with shares listed in Hong Kong, but is still partially owned by various Chinese state stakeholders and Li Ning himself owns a substantial chunk, of course. No wonder they wanted to keep the details of the ceremony under wraps until the last moment.

But don’t get me wrong: I have tremendous respect for Li Ning’s accomplishments both as an athlete and a businessman, and every Chinese person has the right to be proud of him. And I’m NOT saying he’s a bad choice. Clearly he’s a great choice. But that doesn’t alter the fact that his company gets a huge amount of free publicity and goodwill from his appearance, and I applaud it as a brilliant piece of ambush marketing.

By the way, when I wrote my profile of his company a few months back, I requested, but was denied, an interview with him. That’s a pity. Perhaps I shall try a renewed attempt, as Li Ning clearly doesn’t mind being in the limelight again.

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Reader Comments


August 11, 2008 01:34 AM

Well, the guy is a national hero in China. Who do you think the Chinese should have chosen to light the flame? Michael Schumacher?


August 11, 2008 01:40 AM

Article is not clear about how exactly the "ambush" was performed. Many people did not see the ceremony. What exactly happened??

Darren Guyz

August 11, 2008 01:43 AM

Frederik, you think too much and too complicated. Li Ning brand wont get that much of attention outside China if you didn't mention it here. Nobody is looking at this former Olympic medal winner's brand, we are more interested in the ceremony than a hanging guy.


August 11, 2008 01:53 AM

You guys are jealous. So what? Then what?


August 11, 2008 02:20 AM

I couldn´t tell the brand or logo on any of the people during the ceremony. I think you are trying too hard Frederik.

Praful Halakhandi

August 11, 2008 02:32 AM

I did not even know who this guy was. Now for sure I will google it up and find all that is to him and his sports brand. Thanks... Adidas still thinks it's great VFM and they have to... they spent 80 Mn on it. Owner's Bias.


August 11, 2008 03:10 AM

Marketing ambush, Mr Balfour? then maybe you are also an accomplise. I didn't know about this Li-Ning company until you made a big fuss about it.


August 11, 2008 03:15 AM

Dear Boobo
Then you haven't been reading my blogs or magazine pieces then. I first blogged about Li Ning months ago when I discovered it had sponsored the US ping pong team... here's the URL

also I wrote a profile of Li Ning in May. It is highlighted in this most recent blog.


August 11, 2008 03:16 AM

Frederik Balfour has proven himself an idiot businessweek writer again...
Li Ning is a former gymnastic Olympic medalist and he was chosen just a few weeks before the ceremony based on the interview with Zhang Yimou (director)... along with him, Xiong Ni (another former Olympic medalist from diving team)was chosen as backup...

National sports hero, fittness (felxibility, strength and etc) were among some of the major considerations for the selection to ensure a graceful sky running on top of the stadium...


August 11, 2008 03:21 AM

Dont forget, Nike & Addidas came around way before Li Ning and the Chinese had any money or time for interest in sports. Just like China has progress fast we will surpass Nike and Addidas and surpise you sooner than you can inmagine. Just like when Liu won and surpise clowns like you who are jealous and sinical towards the 'inferior Chinese'. Dont forget how many asians and non-whites design and do R&D for Nike and Intel for you r ceos to take credit for it. They can easily and do get pissed at whites like you taking credit for what you didnt do and they do come out and open thier own companies. Microsoft tried to cheat China;s mind power by pretending to open a research center in China , to employ Chinese talent and later steal their ideas and take credit for it in the news with ceos dressed in nice suits. It backfired on them becuase they started off with the wrong premiss, that the chinese cannot figure out they are being tricked? Well, they did and most of them got out and started their own companies to the shock and awe of bill gates.


August 11, 2008 03:23 AM

I almost laughed out loud, looking at the "Impossible Is Nothing" slogin from Adidas, and the "Anything Is Possible" slogin from the Li Ning brand. Ambush marketing aside, the closeness of the slogins reminds me of the copycat that Japanese used to be from US products, before they become a force of their own. But unlike the Japanese, other than the occasional swell of patriotism, the Chinese worship foreign goods. (Anyone who proclaim otherwise is just delusional.) You might hear boycotts from the Chinese from time to time, but they would always value and come back and buy foreign made goods. It's in their psyche.

frederik balfour

August 11, 2008 03:28 AM

Dear Tiddle
Li Ning actually came up with its slogan a couple of years before Adidas!


August 11, 2008 04:12 AM

who else should the chinese govt have chosen frederik? he is a big sports hero, just liek all the former chinese olympic champions who held the torch before. they jsut dont happent o have a sports company named after him. this is not ambush marketing. this is chinese pride.

learn abotu what it is. this is just a journalist once again trying to make a story out of something that is not a story.


August 11, 2008 06:48 AM

Even the detail of lightening the torch was kept till the last moment, most Chinese guess/bet it would be Li to undertake this great responsibility/honor. He just deserve it.

FREDERIK, you are so biased and pathetic. It has nothing to do with commercial.


August 11, 2008 07:44 AM

I am a Chinese. from the recent rumors spreading around the Chinese websites, i can say it is 99% a ambush to adidas. but played out in a very smart way. Li Ning's air walk has a great and hidden impact on the Chinese consumers. national pride will prod them to buy Li Ning products, at least for some time in the foreseeable future. war on business arena is far more complicated than the war on real battle fields.

wang yuan

August 11, 2008 08:49 AM

also as a chinese, i don't believe li Ning will prevail the adidas or nike. You could get the same answer as me if you take a look at the chinese athletes's clothings which is still dominated by adidas and nike.
What would happen if li ning were a south korean brand, do you believe did there exist a little possibility to find one korean athlete wear adidas and nike?
don't be so mean to chinese and its brands, if you knew chinese history , you will understand chinese don't always be patriotic especially in a extreme way but prone to open-minded to everything.


August 11, 2008 09:05 AM

To Michael:
Don't pretend to be a Chinese before you really learn the tone a Chinese will use.


August 11, 2008 10:26 AM

Just goes to show you shouldn't invest in China. Stealing from a local isn't tolerated, but stealing from foreigners is encouraged.


August 11, 2008 10:43 AM

I am pound of Lining as he is a super satar in China, whatever in sports fild past and running business for the time being. It is a big step for his company and Lining brand to be more wroldwide.

I am also pround of the wonderful Olympic opening cenemony.


August 11, 2008 11:50 AM

Frederik, Get a Life! As an American businesswoman who travels extensively in China, your bias report is just another fine example how mainstreet media tries to fool the public about the real china!


August 11, 2008 12:08 PM

Steven, you really need to calm down your racist tirade. You living in a world that was true 150 years ago.


August 11, 2008 12:57 PM

Frederik, I can give you more storylines. How about theses? Hanging Li Ning like that was a severe violation of human right. Practicing Taichi in the ceremony was intended to intimidate other athletes so that China can win more medals. I think these stories will fly.


August 11, 2008 01:48 PM

Li Ning has just cornered the Chinese sport market for this generation after that airwalk. This is ambush marketing at it's best, and it worked. It's not "just a coincidence" that the guy who lit the torch also has a sports company. It's not "just a coincidence" that the details of this were tightly controlled and not released until the last minute.

I see the pro-China dogs are out in force barking the same line again. "Wan-wan-wan!"

It was a great ceremony, and a great advertisement for what it's worth... Heck, I'm even considering buying some Li Nings... and I'm not even Chinese.


August 11, 2008 02:13 PM

Frederik, Li Ning is probably the only option for that job. After I watched the director Zhang Yimou's interview why Li was chosen, there is no doubt Li is the best fit for that role. Why? Who can be physically fit for sky-walking a full circle of that stadium?


August 11, 2008 02:30 PM

Even if it was "ambush" marketing, so what? In business competition, anything is possible, and anything used in anyway is fair game! Too bad Adidas!Besides, some people just got so jealous when China put on such an awesome performance, and that every single detail was being twisted and projected negatively by them.

Father of BW

August 11, 2008 02:33 PM

Well, without this article targeting Li Ning with Chinese business, how many of you have noticed the brand name or business image from the torch bearer?

Maybe Business Week should focus on how would the British perform in 2012?


August 12, 2008 01:04 AM

I challenge you to name me another Chinese gold medalist who is more suitable for the role.


August 12, 2008 01:30 AM

The best reporters for BusinessWeek are working on the BW European section, American section, tech section while all the useless rift and raft are working on the BusinessWeek Asian section and especially assigned to write about China.
Nothing news here. Just speculation and bias.


August 12, 2008 04:15 AM

wow seems like there is a lot of anger at frederik!! why? i dont like his story... li ning is clealry best choice for nation... but it does not have to be to personal.

but i dont think chinese govt plotting to push up li ning and keep down addidas. it is simply getting a loved athlete.

frederik balfour

August 12, 2008 08:17 AM

Dear Readers: Please don't get me wrong: I have tremendous respect for Li Ning's accomplishments both as an athlete and a businessman, and every Chinese person has the right to be proud of him. And I'm NOT saying he's a bad choice. Clearly he's a great choice as torch bearer. But that doesn't alter the fact that his company gets a huge amount of free publicity and goodwill from his appearance. I applaud it as a brilliant piece of ambush marketing.

By the way, when I wrote my profile of his company a few months back, I was denied an interview with him because his public relations handlers told me he wanted to keep a low profile [at least when the western press were concerned] That's a pity for I was looking forward to meeting him. Perhaps I shall make a renewed attempt, as Li Ning clearly doesn't mind being in the limelight again.

BW Week

August 13, 2008 01:44 PM

Li Ning should thank BS Week for enhancing the global profile of his company. There were no mention at all about Li Ning the brand during the opening ceremony and Li Ning the entrepreneur had to eat his pride by wearing Addidas products in order to serve his patriotic duty. Honor and duty to your people, these are clearly something BS Week reporters will never understand. But hey, thanks for giving Li Ning the brand a little international publicity it does not get from the opening ceremony.


August 13, 2008 02:25 PM

They should divest themselves of the Spanish basketball team which stupidly posed for ad photos in which the whole team manually slanted their eyes to make them "appear Chinese." The ads are scheduled to appear during the Games. Li Ning is a sponsor of the team.

Abc Mno

August 13, 2008 03:03 PM

No one noticed the Blue Screen of Death behind him???


August 13, 2008 06:49 PM

Did anyone actually read this article? Balfour is not condemning anyone for this "ambush" marketing nor is he arguing that its effect is supposed to be on American audience (the subtitle of his other Li Ning piece is "Chinese athletic wear maker Li Ning is raising its international profile to win over shoppers at home "). Both of these are overlooked in most of the comments. Furthermore, Balfour is not presenting some conspiracy theory but merely stating that it will be beneficial to Li Ning that its eponymous head was featured in the opening ceremonies. In two decades when Phelps Aquatics takes off (no such thing exists, I hypothesizing) and tries to rival Speedo and we see ol Michael swimming across some olympic stadium in the air, Balfour's article might remind Speedo of the publicity their rival is going to get without paying a cent.

Everyone here is quick to say, "Get a life Balfour" or "This is sensationalism" but picking apart a very benign piece and trying to make it polemic is far more pathetic and sensational than anything in this article.


August 13, 2008 06:50 PM

"Li Ning’s sports shoe and apparel brand, established in 1990, left its two Olympic sponsorship rivals eating Beijing dust as its stock raced up 3.52 pct in trade Monday. Adidas came in silver, hitting the finishing line up USD 3.29, or 1.05 pct, at USD 32.96 whilst Nike was last trailing the field up USD 0.32, or 0.51 pct, at USD 63.27." Yikes, what if Balfour was right?


August 13, 2008 09:54 PM

Calm down guys. Frederik simply reported on a marketing coup by a Chinese brand. Heck, had Yao Ming been the guy, Fred would've written about Reebok!

Ambush marketing has been around for years. Personally, I think they should have a competition among marketers on the best freeloaders.

Nike has been dogged for years for their tactics (most
Americans thought Nike sponsored the Atlanta games).

Seriously, I've read a lot of biased stories about this Olympic, but this article is not it.


August 13, 2008 10:06 PM

To Tiddle,
Adidas has copied Li Ning slogan! Don’t always look down upon Chinese wisdom! Copycat is not synonymous with Chinese companies, but with those idiots who think of other people as idiots!


August 13, 2008 11:19 PM

so just because li ning doesn't want an interview with a nobody faux "reporter" like yourself and he is then willing to be the person to light the torch for an audience of 4 billion, he is biased against western press? you're an idiot. i'm sure if katie couric or some high profile reporter wanted to interview he would, but you're nobody frederic. you have such a sense of entitlement and white privilege that it's deluding you. stop writing your garbage

nothing new, just more china bashing.

why don't you write about the racist, classless spanish basketball team with their "advertising". isn't that newsworthy? i'm sure you're able to put some spin on it to make the chinese look bad in that scenario.

too many insecure whites


August 14, 2008 09:22 AM

HAHA @ "Li Ning came up with the slogan a few years before Adidas."

The Chinese know no bounds in their theft.

I'm sure Li Ning was the first human being to state that anything is possible!!

HAHAHA, what a joke!


August 14, 2008 09:55 AM

....Flashback...1996 Summer Olympic Games, opening ceremonies.....McDonald's uses a GIANT CRANE to lift an enormous GOLDEN ARCH into the 'beauty shot' of the opening ceremonies- ambush marketing by a top level sponsor. .. ...NIKE and Adidas set up visitor experience attractions adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park and get hundreds of thousands of visitors without paying the $40 million sponsorship "entrance fee". PEPSI pays hundreds of 'kids' to wear PEPSI shirts into the Olympic Venues, in direct violation of the clean venue rules...

EVERYBODY does it if they can- they spend millions of dollars finding the right companies to do the ambushing for them. I pay attention to these things and I didn't feel ambushed at all in China. No more than I did seeing Mohamed Ali lighting the torch and thinking he might say something about roaches (OK a very old reference) or the Aussie girl standing there freezing in the waterfall (summer 200), all the time knowing she was a NIKE sponsored athlete.

Even older reference

August 14, 2008 12:33 PM

Another flashback: 1954 soccer world cup: Who is the official "equipment manager" of the German team which ended up winning? Adi Dassler, co-founder of Adidas (guess whom the company is named after). He provided the latest shoes from his company's R&D exclusively to the German team and Adidas got tremendous marketing leverage all over Europe out of the surprise win of the team. So, Li Ning is following in the footsteps of a clever marketing pioneer.

Maja Parla

August 14, 2008 01:26 PM

I have to agree with the 'oops, cat's out of the bag' bits. I took some offense at the initial posts of 'Frederik, you try to hard' (I couldn't understand why people were being 'haters' - Frederik had a good enough point), but I must admit:

I knew neither the name of the hoisted, nor that he was a competitor with Nike/Adidas until Frederik mentioned it here.

The announcers during the olympics mentioned nothing of who this guy was besides an olympic medalist.

I get Reuters' 'oddly enough' headlines above my gmail inbox, and clicked on an alluring headline.


August 15, 2008 02:27 AM

I will actually give Mr.Balfour a kudo for his understanding of the Chinese market. Although the organizer of the ceremony probably didn't have the intention to support Li Ning's company in mind when they made their decision, in reality, this was a boost to Li's brand.

However, I do agree that it's still hard if possible at all for Li Ning to compete against Nike or Adidas. The sportswear business is a totally different beast from other apparel businesses. Sportwear business is the only apparel business where you can produce on a scale which enables you to market on a scale. A company only known within China simply cannot compete with Nike and Adidas in marketing, which is paramount in this business


August 15, 2008 05:10 AM

I have to say it is genius to have Li Ning to close the opening. He is not only a symbol for athletes but also symbol of economic might, two things that China want Beijing olympic to represent. The fact that he is a chairman of Adidas' rival just made it more sweeter.


August 15, 2008 09:32 PM

The author is this article is only speculating and not proof is being provided. Li Ning is famous Chinese athlete and that is why he was selected. He won't a lot of gold medal in Gymnastic during the LA Olympic the first Olympic that China participate and he was chosen to be the one to light the torch during the Opening Ceremony. It was symbolic that he could do it as closing the loop.
I can 't believe that this China basher would go this low to reduce a man accomplishment as a cheap commercial!
All the trash reporter and tabloid reporter are in BusinessWeek Asian session to write and defame Chinese achievement.


August 19, 2008 08:49 PM

Li Ning gave a poor country, China, pride in the 1984 Olympics shattering the Russian-US-Japan domination of mens gymnastics. Now wealthy and resurgent, China has paid back the debt of gratitude. Li Ning is the ultimate Olympic ideal and embodies China's aspirations for sport and international business success. How many ex-Olympians have translated Olympic triumph into economic success? Mark Spitz? Mary Lou Retton? Beamon? This is the ultimate American Dream - only in China.


August 20, 2008 01:57 AM

Way to go, China. Show the world what you've got.

Anyways, is there any information about his family? i'm curious to see what his family'd be like...

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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