CHECK THE FINE PRINT on pretty much anything—from an iPhone to a fridge magnet— and chances are it was made in China. Yet, for many, Chinese brands are uncool. Sports goods maker Li-Ning is trying to build a premium brand like Adidas and Nike that consumers will aspire to. In March this year, Li-Ning entered India through Meerut-based Indo Rubber & Plastic Works, which distributes the brand across 550 outlets. Ram G. Malhotra, who heads Indo Rubber, says the first exclusive Li-Ning store will open in Bangalore next year.

But being a Chinese company in India isn’t easy. Harish Bijoor, chief executive of brand consultancy HB Consults, says, “Branding is all in the mind. And in our minds, China is a supplier of cheap goods [rather] than great brands.”
Li-Ning plans to tackle this by establishing itself as a serious sports goods brand first, and then branching out into sports lifestyle apparel.

Li-Ning is big in China, with more than 7,303 stores and a revenue of $1.41 billion in FY11. Olympic gold medallist gymnast Li Ning set up the company in 1990.

Li-Ning has begun its India journey with badminton, one of its strongest portfolios (its range spans basketballs to running shoes). World No. 1 Lin Dan of China endorses the brand and Chinese players dominate the sport globally.

Badminton is growing fast in India. Consulting firm Technopak pegs India’s sports goods market at $1 billion (Rs 5,458 crore), growing at 35% to 40% annually. Malhotra says India’s badminton market has doubled in the past three years and is now close to Rs 150 crore. Li-Ning believes Yonex, with its huge market share, is its biggest competitor. Li-Ning has signed up Indian shuttlers Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa, but star shuttler Saina Nehwal has gone with Yonex.

Li-Ning’s pricing is also aimed at overcoming the ‘cheap goods’ perception. Its lowest-priced racquet comes for Rs 2,500, whereas Yonex’s starts around Rs 1,000. Li-Ning claims it has an edge in quality that makes its products competitive even at a higher price.

E-mails to the company’s Beijing headquarters elicited a customary response emphasising on taking the brand global and improving quality.

According to London-based Trendwatching.com, which highlights trends for marketers, new age Chinese companies are fast learning the art of branding and Li-Ning is one. Its global profile has gained prominence following endorsement deals with NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade, Olympic pole vault gold winner Yelena Isinbayeva, and former 100 m world record holder Asafa Powell.

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