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Can Dwyane Wade's Li-Ning Deal Change China Brand Perceptions?

Posted by Abe Sauer on September 14, 2012 10:07 AM

If yo-yoing was a major sport, Chinese athletics brand Li-Ning would have a lock on the market for yo-yo gear. In the last four years, the brand has gone from potential global dominance to firing its CEO to moderate success at the London Olympics.

But struggling Li-Ning may be about to catch a big break. If rumors are true — and they appear to be — Li-Ning just drafted NBA superstar Dwyane Wade.

As first reported, and then confirmed, by blog Sneakerwatch, two-time world champion, NBA Finals MVP, and Miami Heat star Wade is going to pass on renewing his deal with Michael Jordan's Nike-backed Jordan Brand and instead sign onto Li-Ning's roster. That's huge news for Li-Ning, and a blow to Jordan Brand.

Li-Ning has repeatedly taken it on the chin over the last couple years. The company posted a crippling 65 percent drop in profit in 2011. Then Li-Ning's Spain licensee went bankrupt, despite the brand's sponsorship of the nation's rather successful 2012 Olympic basketball team.  Li-Ning even benched its CEO and brought its namesake founder Li Ning back to run the hobbled brand.

In China, where the brand is desperate to shore up its market against other domestic competitors like Peak and, of course, Nike, the deal will have legs.

The appropriately named CEO of NBA China, David Shoemaker, recently told the China Daily that the NBA's TV ratings increased 20 percent this season even though it was cut short after labor negotiations. The NBA's China social media accounts boast Weibo and 52 million followers.

Meanwhile, Wade — known as in China as Dewen Weide (德文韦德) — is a huge star for the mainland's millions of NBA fans. He may see soccer as the world's #1 sport, but Wade's China relations go back several years. In 2011, there was even speculation that Wade might go to play in China's CBA.

When a rumor that Wade would play in China turned out to be false, Wade said he would not rule out such a move in the future, a possibility that certainly increased his popularity. During a 2011 exhibition game between the USA and China, Wade even joined team China to "even the odds."

Li-Ning already has deals with other NBA stars like Evan Turner and Baron Davis. At one time, it even worked with Shaquille O'Neal. But the Wade partnership is by far its most high profile deal. Wade will certainly add some sex appeal and fireworks to the Li-Ning brand. But it also may accomplish something much more pedestrian in terms of brand perception.

A huge goal accomplished by signing champion Wade is an endorsement of brand make quality. The great irony is that while shoes by Nike, Adidas and other brands are made in China in the same kinds of manufacturing environments Li-Ning uses, the quality of the product offered by the Chinese brand is regarded with suspicion. That is to say, Nike's products benefit from an assumption of quality simply by virtue of being an American brand, despite coming from the same manufacturing source.

A Wade endorsement could go a long way to erasing such a quality gap. A superstar would hardly play in substandard equipment right? Thusly, if Wade is rocking Li-Nings on the court, the brand must be of comparable quality to Nike. Or so the reasoning (hopefully) goes for Li-Ning.

What's more, if the deal is announced quickly enough, Li-Ning will be able to surf the Wade wave that's sure to accompany the star's visit to China in October when the Champion Miami Heat will play two exhibition games against the L.A. Clippers as part of the "NBA China Games.

Wade-Li-Ning photoshop courtesy of Wreibo user @鞋吧Sneakersbar.

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