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.