"It never hurts when people are talking about you relative to a guy whose every statement is picked up by a microphone."
That was the assessment of Brian Cupps, Brand Initiatives Director at Li-Ning, of the recent news that Dwayne Wade's new Li-Ning-inspired nickname "Way of Wade" (WoW) was called "corny" by MVP teammate LeBron James. "It's more tongue in cheek than anything," said Cupps. "It doesn't hurt."
Li-Ning's fledgling partnership with Wade has certainly not hurt either brand. Though hard numbers are yet to come, Cupps said anecdotally that "all of our indicators, be it social media or future sales, are up based on Wade." Cupps added, "Particularly in the US, where we had little to no real consumer following, we have a very strong pull right now and demand for our products because of Wade. Now we have to feed that demand."
Feeding the demand is going to be a huge challenge for Li-Ning for a number of reasons. For starters, it's a Chinese brand facing a mountain of existing consumer prejudice against China. Worse, negative China news outside of Li-Ning's control impacts this effort.
In the last couple weeks, Li-Ning has begun the rollout of the initial phase of its "Way of Wade" campaign. Cupps says that this portion of Li-Ning's strategy is to recast the brand to American consumers through Wade's personal messaging and involvement. Less conventional spokesman, Wade's Wow is "more of a philosophy with a message that's about being oneself and doing your own thing." Cupps adds that the goal is to "Answer the question: why Li-Ning?" An initial spot showing Wade's hands-on involvement, along with changing his nickname and launching the wayofwade.com site accomplishes this. At the recent All Star Game, Wade hosted a special Li-Ning WoW event.
Li-Ning's next job is to get the products on shelves. "In the next 30 to 45 days, consumers will start seeing products available at Wayofwade.com as well as targeted retailers in New York and Miami," said Cupps. "Then, in the fourth quarter, a second signature product and full scale integrated launch."
Cupps' praise for Wade is focused on the veteran calm the superstar brought to a partnership that's far more complex than the average shoe deal. "Wade's made the transition to a brand that's never had a partner of this magnitude much more seamless than a younger player who may not understand everything that's involved," says Cupps. It certainly doesn't hurt the WoW campaign that Wade, even after a recent surgery, has been playing well. (The opposite of Tony Parker—China brand Peak's new NBA spokesman—who's out for a month with an injury.)
One of the things Li-Ning gets with Wade in the U.S. is a seat at the big boys table. For example, when the Miami Heat cut its own "Harlem Shake" video, sneaker-obsessed blogs like Kicks on Fire broke down in detail what each star was wearing. It even titled the post "Dwyane Wade rocks gold Li-Ning Way of Wade in Miami Heat 'Harlem Shake' video."
"He's resonated with the Chinese consumers," as well, says Cupps. Wade has visited before and played last year in two Miami Heat exhibition games. Recently, Chinese media has latched on to a rumor that Wade has "promised" to play in China after his NBA career.
Wade will also make another trip to China in July for Li-Ning. Cupps says that Li-Ning is working on translating that visit into messaging that will interest U.S. consumers, which might mean a streaming event to highlight the magnitude of the brand.
Despite all of the progress Wade will make bringing Li-Ning to the U.S., there remains the challenge of being a Chinese brand. For starters, the announcement of Wade's Li-Ning partnership resulted in the expected cavalcade of comments—and the quality implications—about the shoes being "made in China," a criticism that ignores the fact that tons of "American" brands are made in China.
Beyond that, when U.S. media finds space to write about China, it's generally to cover the pollution or, say, China's hacking scandal. It's a communications environment where "China" is repeatedly connected with negativity. Cupps says that this is on the mind of Li-Ning in all communications, but there just isn't much a brand can do about it.
"It comes into play," says Cupps. "Not at a micro level but at a macro level. Awareness. Strategically, you want to find opportunities to piggyback on what Wade is doing so as to be seen as apolitical, as nothing more than a brand partner." That said, Cupps wonders just how much young U.S. consumers are either aware of, or interested in, the shifting winds of geopolitics. "China-U.S. relations is more of an adult topic. The 14, 15, 16-year-old kids that play ball and buy sneakers are much more at a level of do I like Dwayne Wade, yes or no, and do I think his products are cool, yes or no."
Unfortunately, Cupps doesn't think Chinese brands will throw off the stigma anytime soon. "I've been in basketball a long time and I would be shocked if it happened in my career or lifetime only because the relationship between China and the U.S. is something the media is always going to gravitate towards," says Cupps. "It helps sell newspapers." It does not, unfortunately, help sell Chinese brands.