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China's top athletic wear maker, Li Ning, has quite a lineup of sponsorships for the Beijing Olympics. There's the U.S. ping-pong squad (the men are ranked 44th globally and the women are 12th), Sudan's track and field athletes (none of whom has ever won an Olympic medal), and Sweden's Olympic delegation (but the athletes won't wear Li Ning during competition, only for ceremonies).

Why would a shoe and clothing manufacturer that does 99% of its business in China bother with athletes from far-flung locales where its products aren't sold? It has to do with Li Ning's unusual position in the Chinese market. The 18-year-old company once ruled China's sneaker business, but today it lags behind giants Nike (NKE) and Adidas (ADDDY) even at home. And a big part of the appeal of those powerful rivals is their profile on the global stage. "We don't have as strong a brand" as Nike and Adidas, says Abel Wu, who oversees Li Ning's footwear division. "Our thinking is that as a local brand, we need to have an international image."

Call it paper-tiger marketing. Li Ning tries to create the illusion of being a global player despite its near-total reliance on its home market. In addition to the international sponsorships, the company is running an ad campaign called "One Team, One Belief" featuring European, African, South American—and Chinese—athletes standing in a stadium with their hands across their hearts. And Li Ning has teamed up with the National Basketball Assn. as a sponsor of the "NBA Jam Van Tour." The event, which rolls through dozens of Chinese cities, includes a basketball court that can be assembled at every stop. Local kids are invited to participate in competitions such as the "Li Ning Slam Dunk Contest."

Source: www.bloomberg.com
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