Chinese Sneaker Giant Li Ning Steps Onto Nike's Home Court

The comparisons to Nike (NKE) are impossible to ignore. Even if Chinese shoe maker Li Ning's logo was not extraordinarily reminiscent of the swoosh, its focus on basketball shoes and huge marketing deals with big-name NBA stars would inspire associations with America's biggest shoe brand.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% And then, there is Li Ning's showroom and store, which opened Monday in the Pearl neighborhood of Portland, Ore., less than a mile from its rival's flagship Niketown, mecca to its sportswear and spokes-athletes. There is its design center, located here two years ago to take advantage of the city's deep pool of shoe-designing talent, housed in a century-old brick building, brown paper covering the office's only windows.

Portland may not be the epicenter of all that is basketball, but it is certainly the epicenter of all that is basketball shoes. It is here that Michael Jordan's shoes are designed. It is here that art and graphic design students paint shoe prototypes, and young ad men and women strive to write the next "Just Do It" at Wieden+Kennedy, where the first "Just Do It" was written.

Li Ning basketball shoes are, at least this: attention-getting. NBA star Baron Davis signed with the company in 2008 and worked with the Portland design team to develop his signature line of shoes. The shoes are bold, in-your-face, perfect basketball shoes with a caricature of the bearded star on the tongue strap. But despite the American star's line and the Portland design center, until now Americans had no place to buy the shoes.

By every account, Li Ning's shoes are very popular in China; in 2006, NBA legend and former Reebok endorser Shaquille O'Neal signed a five-year deal to promote Li Ning in China (stingingly, Chinese national Yao Ming endorses Reebok). This is in part due to the longtime popularity of founder and chairman Li Ning, who won three Olympic gold medals in gymnastics during the 1984 Los Angeles games. It's also due to the focus of the company on sports the Chinese people care about; table tennis, badminton, gymnastics and soccer are big product lines for the company's footwear and clothing divisions.

But even in China, Nike is No. 1 (with Adidas, another company with a headquarters in the Portland area, at No. 2). And there is this problem: Li Ning's logo, meant to be a combination of the L and N initial letters, looks a lot like the Nike swoosh. As if that weren't enough, another problem: No one in this country, even here in Portland, where 23 of the city's talented shoe designers and marketers work to create a name for the company, has heard of it.

Trendsetting Kicks, or Kick Them to the Curb?

Well, not no one. After asking around among many friends who are huge fans of basketball, shoes, actual designers at Nike, and other folks I thought might know about the company, I found a few Li Ning aficionados. Jim Roeder was just such a guy. Having worked for many years managing footwear and athletic apparel stores, and always looking for the next hot stock, he was quick to hop on an Associated Press story in January 2005 announcing a strategic partnership between the NBA and Li Ning, which had gone public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange the previous summer. Although it took a call to Ameritrade's customer service desk, he bought stock in the company the next day.

He traveled to Beijing for the next shareholder's meeting, and being a 6'9" American, he stood out (literally) from the crowd. His tallness got the attention of company management and he soon began an email relationship with Li Ning's CFO, which led to other relationships, culminating in the Chinese company's participation in a few ultra-marathon events on the East Coast of the U.S. Jim has been looking forward to the opening of the store in Portland for a long time, he says; up until now, he's had no way to buy the shoes or athletic wear, and must rely on the generosity of his friends in sports marketing to send him samples.

Another brand expert in Portland, Patrick Prothe, had read the same Oregonian article about Li Ning that was my introduction to the company. I asked him what he thought about the chances of this brand -- with its logo so similar to Nike -- in Nike's own hip, creative stomping ground of Portland. It could just work, he said: "I think the brand has a big opportunity among those who are trend setters, want to stand out from the herd -- and may be tired of Nike. Kind of like those who prefer independent coffee shops to Starbucks. Li-Ning has appeal among independent thinkers wanting to make a statement," he wrote.

Really? I consider myself an independent thinker -- I drink independent roasters' brews -- but to me, Li Ning's statement only said "We're very much like Nike, only Chinese."

I sent a friend, David Rebanal, a photo of the shoes, a link to the article. He has the distinction of being the sort of young creative professional I can just imagine Li Ning might want to target: with an office in the same hip industrial-creative neighborhood, a devoted basketball player, an admitted Nike critic, and even, as a Filipino, interested in supporting Asian businesses. "What do you think: would you buy these shoes?" I asked.

Rebanal had never heard of the shoes or the company, and frankly thought the shoes were ugly. They "look more novelty, or like "knock-offs", e.g., trying to be Nikes," he wrote me. Even though the favorite basketball player of his youth, Allen Iverson, was a Reebok spokesman, he has always come back to Nike. "When it comes to comfort, performance, weight, material, look, and "cred", it's hard to compete with Nike. I hate saying it too," he adds. He plays with a diverse crowd of other prime Li Ning targets, and he said nearly every one wears Nike, as well. He can't imagine anyone he knows buying Li Ning, for pickup games, for league games, for anything. "The more I look at them, the more I'm sure I'd be the victim of some good jokes, were I sport them at the next game," he wrote.

Will Li Ning, even through its location right under the basket of the basketball shoe design home court, forge a customer base here in the States? It looks extremely doubtful.

Sarah Gilbert grew up in Portland, prostrate at the altar of Nike; her beloved high school track coach was the mother of the guy who designed Michael Jordan's shoes. She hangs out in the Pearl neighborhood where Li Ning is based, and has shared many a cocktail with Wieden+Kennedy employees and the sort of people who paint prototype shoes for $12 an hour. She had never heard of Li Ning, either, until December.
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