How Nike Figured Out China

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    The quest for cool hooked Zhang Han early. An art student in a loose Donald Duck T shirt and Carhartt work pants, Zhang, 20, has gone from occasional basketball player to All-Star consumer. He pries open his bedroom closet to reveal 19 pairs of Air Jordans, a full line of Dunks and signature shoes of NBA stars like Vince Carter — more than 60 pairs costing $6,000. Zhang began gathering Nikes in the 1990s after a cousin sent some from Japan; his businessman father bankrolls his acquisitions. "Most Chinese can't afford this stuff," Zhang says, "but I know people with hundreds of pairs." Then he climbs into his jeep to drive his girlfriend to McDonald's.

    Zhang hadn't yet been born when Nike founder Phil Knight first traveled to China in 1980, before Beijing could even ship to U.S. ports; the country was just emerging from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. By the mid-'80s, Knight had moved much of his production to China from South Korea and Taiwan. But he saw China as more than a workshop. "There are 2 billion feet out there," former Nike executives recall his saying. "Go get them!"

    Phase 1, getting the Swoosh recognized, proved relatively easy. Nike outfitted top Chinese athletes and sponsored all the teams in China's new pro basketball league in 1995. But the company had its share of horror stories too, struggling with production problems (gray sneakers instead of white), rampant knock-offs, then criticism that it was exploiting Chinese labor. Cracking the market in a big way seemed impossible. Why would the Chinese consumer spend so much — twice the average monthly salary back in the late 1990s — on a pair of sneakers?

    Sports simply wasn't a factor in a country where, since the days of Confucius, education levels and test scores dictated success. So Nike executives set themselves a potentially quixotic challenge: to change China's culture. Recalls Terry Rhoads, then director of sports marketing for Nike in China: "We thought, 'We won't get anything if they don't play sports.'" A Chinese speaker, Rhoads saw basketball as Nike's ticket. He donated equipment to Shanghai's high schools and paid them to open their basketball courts to the public after hours. He put together three-on-three tournaments and founded the city's first high school basketball league, the Nike League, which has spread to 17 cities. At games, Rhoads blasted the recorded sound of cheering to encourage straitlaced fans to loosen up, and he arranged for the state-run television network to broadcast the finals nationally. The Chinese responded: sales through the 1990s picked up 60% a year. "Our goal was to hook kids into Nike early and hold them for life," says Rhoads, who now runs a Shanghai-based sports marketing company, Zou Marketing. Nike also hitched its wagon to the NBA (which had begun televising games in China), bringing players like Michael Jordan for visits. Slowly but surely, in-the-know Chinese came to call sneakers "Nai-ke."

    And those sneakers brought with them a lot more than just basketball. Nike gambled that the new middle class, now some 40 million people who make an average of $8,500 a year for a family of three, was developing a whole new set of values, centered on individualism. Nike unabashedly made American culture its selling point, with ads that challenge China's traditional, group-oriented ethos. This year the company released Internet teaser clips showing a faceless but Asian-looking high school basketball player shaking-and-baking his way through a defense. It was timed to coincide with Nike tournaments around the country and concluded with the question, "Is this you?" The viral advertisement drew 5 million e-mails. Nike then aired TV spots contrasting Chinese-style team-oriented play with a more individualistic American style, complete with a theme song blending traditional Chinese music and hip-hop.

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