You may think you’ve never heard of Li Ning. But assuming you were one of the 4 billion or so people watching the opening ceremony of last year’s Beijing Olympics, you’ve seen him. Remember the guy who lit the Olympic flame? The one who, as if by some superhuman power, levitated more than 100 feet and ran that mesmerizing aerial lap around the Bird’s Nest stadium before setting the Olympic cauldron ablaze? That was Li Ning. And if he has his way, you won’t be forgetting him again.
Li Ning, the man, is a hero in China — the gymnast who snagged six medals, including three gold, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and thus helped launch a national surge that reached its height last summer when China won more gold than any other country. (Before Li’s Olympic debut, China hadn’t appeared at a summer Games since Helsinki in 1952, when it failed to take home a single medal.)
Li Ning, the company, is China’s biggest domestic maker of athletic footwear and sports apparel. This year, it’s set to rake in over $1 billion from more than 6,300 stores across the country. In the next four years, it plans to add 3,000 more. And to top it off, the company is now undergoing a major overhaul that, with the help of the American consultancy Ziba Design, just might prime it for its ultimate goal: becoming an international name. “We want Li Ning to be a globally recognized brand,” says Li, who founded the company in 1990 because he wanted Chinese athletes to be able to wear a Chinese label. “This is our real asset, and building it up is our long-term commitment.”
That’s where Ziba comes in. Based in Portland, Oregon, the spiritual home of sneakers, Ziba is the 110-person firm behind such innovation milestones as HP’s first flat-panel PC monitor and Microsoft’s first ergonomic keyboard. And for the past two years, it’s been hard at work helping Li Ning remake itself. Everything from the company’s product line and store interiors to its visual identity and even its logo are going under the knife. But Ziba is also helping Li Ning learn to think of itself as a global company, which is no small thing for an operation that’s been almost exclusively focused on the domestic market. “Defining the problem is more important than solving the problem,” says Ziba founder Sohrab Vossoughi. And for Li Ning, “The problem, and goal, was to create a world-class design competency.”
In China, the problem is not just Li Ning’s, and the current economic downturn has only underscored the urgency of addressing it. To become a true superpower, China knows its manufacturing-based economy needs an upgrade. On the one hand, the country has to continue to fuel domestic consumption that will reduce reliance on exports; on the other, it needs to grow domestic brands that can compete worldwide. So far, the latter effort has yielded little. The Chinese computer giant Lenovo, for example, has struggled to maintain momentum since its much-ballyhooed purchase of IBM’s PC division in 2005. And remember TCL? Exactly. (It took over RCA in 2003, but has hardly returned it to its glory days.) True, China’s corporate leaders are beginning to understand the value of design in broadening their reach. But the words “Haier appliance” have yet to make Americans swoon.
Li Ning wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of others by not expanding abroad too hastily. More important, before it could become a global player, it had to reclaim its home turf: In 2002, despite Li Ning’s double-digit growth, both Nike and Adidas surpassed the company in Chinese market share. And they’ve been gaining since. “When that happened,” says Zhang Zhiyong, Li Ning’s youthful 41-year-old CEO, “we realized that revenue is not the most important thing for a company. It’s product and brand innovation — a design strategy, not just designs.”
Or as Ziba creative director Jeremy Kaye tells it: “Li Ning had been the leading Chinese brand for 15, 16 years by essentially competing with itself.” But with fierce foreign rivals capturing the prestige, and lower-end brands undercutting them in price, “it couldn’t continue by just putting product on the shelves.”
Rolling across 25 acres in the outskirts of Beijing, Li Ning’s gleaming corporate campus is a manifestation of the company’s newfound self-awareness. Completed in 2007, its sleek, low-slung buildings are ringed by red granite walkways evoking running tracks and hexagonal concrete benches that could have been peeled off a giant soccer ball. In the soaring visitor’s center, school groups snap photos with life-size cutouts of China’s Olympic gymnastics team and Houston Rockets forward (and Yao Ming teammate) Chuck Hayes. There are basketball and badminton courts. An eight-lane swimming pool. An outdoor soccer field. A rock-climbing wall.
The message is clear: This company lives and breathes sports. But it also looks and sounds a mite familiar. “There’s a perception that what Nike does, Li Ning follows,” says Charley Kan, the Beijing-based creative director of MEC China, a leading communications consultancy, echoing many others.
Indeed, when Abel Wu first arrived at Li Ning as its marketing VP in 2004, he found a brand afflicted with a fuzzy identity. Even worse, “the majority of customers were middle-aged; they didn’t look fashionable and neither did the product,” says Wu, who now oversees Li Ning’s Lotto division. (The company owns the Chinese rights for both that Italian sportswear label and its French counterpart, Aigle.) “It was like a typical Chinese brand.” He doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
Under Wu, tactics such as sponsoring athletes (the Spanish national basketball team, Shaquille O’Neal) helped Li Ning woo a younger audience by burnishing its international cachet. But from a design standpoint, the company was still foundering. Its stores looked tired. Its logo bore an unfortunate resemblance to Nike’s swoosh. Its products were mishmashes of motifs and styles — the mentality was to “just put everything on one shoe,” Kaye recalls — and were being churned out without much thought for overall coherence. Li Ning needed a better strategy.
As it happened, the Chinese company’s quest for authenticity began with hiring an American design firm that had worked with Nike in the past. But Li Ning had a not-so-secret weapon that neither Nike nor Adidas could ever claim: Li himself. “They have a heritage to be uniquely differentiated in the industry,” says Ziba account director Lili Yeo. They also have a ready market. “Although they have many choices, deep in their hearts, we think Chinese consumers are looking for a Chinese brand they can be proud of,” says Li. As a credible national icon — at his insistence, the company did little to exploit his Olympic torch-lighting moment — Li’s DNA can really resonate with the Chinese.
This may be especially true of the balinghou — literally “post-’80s” — generation, that savvier-than-ever, outward-looking cohort of young Chinese born in the post-economic reform years. The object of every marketing exec’s lust, the balinghou came of age during China’s ascendancy and are increasingly sure of themselves and their country. Ziba knew that simply waving a Chinese flag in front of them wouldn’t be enough. So to reach them, it conducted an exhaustive yearlong study, including interviews in eight cities, to produce a design strategy that would get their attention.
Ziba found a subtle yet profound difference in the way these Chinese and their Western peers view the role of sports in their lives. “The Chinese don’t categorize themselves by the sports they play; you seldom hear people saying ‘I’m a bowler,’ or ‘I’m a football player,’ ” says Kaye, the Ziba creative director, adding that Li Ning had been working under the opposite paradigm, or “the Nike model.” The reality, Ziba determined, was that the Chinese see sports as movement and movement as part of their day-to-day lives. “It’s the kid who bikes to school, plays a quick game of pickup, does his homework, and sees a movie with his girlfriend,” says Kaye. “All in the same outfit.” At the same time, Ziba saw an emphasis on “appropriateness,” as Kaye puts it — a desire among young Chinese to find what’s right for them based on who they are right now, versus who they aspire to be or might later become.
Placed under the rubric “Sport for my modern Chinese life,” these and other findings are helping Ziba remake Li Ning’s product line in some fundamental ways. For starters, what was once an ad hoc approach will be replaced by an overarching design language with multiple translations. Two of those will target, respectively, hard-core sports buffs (for example, with performance-oriented gear) and the style-conscious crowd (skater graphics and the like). The third will reach for that larger group for whom sports are simply an integral part of their daily routine — those kids playing pickup games after school. Think the sneaker equivalents of jeans and pocket tees.
Meanwhile, Ziba has come up with design templates, now being tested, for Li Ning’s 6,000-plus stores. “In some ways, this is the holy grail, to get the retail right,” says Kaye. The new look will include ring-shaped lights that recall the company’s gymnastic roots and chalkboard walls where the staff can, for example, list its top picks. Throughout, concrete floors and splashes of red will provide the bold strokes of a more contemporary Chinese look. The goal, of course, is to deepen Li Ning’s connection with its customers; to drive home the point, changing graphics will evoke a “hero in all of us” ideal.
In the end, however, Li Ning’s overhaul goes beyond redesigning stores and sneakers for the Chinese market. Instead, it aims to steer the company away from China’s reigning culture of imitation and toward one of authentically creative, original ideas and products. If Ziba and Li Ning can manage to translate that message into a language that can be understood across the Pacific, the new company could become the global force it hopes to be. And to prove it’s serious, Li Ning is currently instituting multilingual IT platforms and making a few significant, if cautious, moves overseas. While it has yet to reveal its plans for launching in the United States, in 2007, the company opened a now 20-member design studio in Portland — just around the corner from Ziba — where the first things you see are the Chinese and American flags hanging, stadium-style, side by side.
Of course, the challenges ahead are not lost on anyone, and they run deeper than the usual implementation, logistics, and corporate-culture banalities. It’s unclear, for example, whether Ziba’s product design guidelines will be enough to produce the blockbusters the industry demands; any protocol will be only as good as the ability of Li Ning’s designers to interpret it — and results won’t start to hit shelves until next year. Moreover, in preparing itself for an international move, Li Ning is in many ways banking on the idea that a Chinese trademark might one day have the luster to capture the hearts and minds of consumers abroad. Yet as everyone knows, Brand China rarely gets the benefit of the doubt these days. Even many Chinese assume that Li Ning’s “Anything is possible” slogan is a rip-off of Adidas’s “Impossible is nothing” — despite the fact that the former predates the latter by two years.
Still, let’s not forget that “Made in Japan” once also implied “cheap knockoff.” And don’t underestimate Li Ning’s determination to become an international presence. In some ways, it has no choice. “Li Ning users expect us to become an international brand,” says Zhang, the CEO. In other words, the company had better go global if it wants to stay competitive at home, and it even has a time frame for accomplishing that. “We have a vision,” Zhang says. Within the next decade, “we want to be one of the top five sports brands worldwide.” To borrow a phrase from this side of the ocean, they might just do it.
Based in Beijing and New York, contributing writer Aric Chen frequently writes for The New York Times, I.D., Metropolis, and Surface.