Losing lustre?

Golden boy, Liu Xiang discovers what it means to be an ‘damaged brand’

Losing lustre?

Ouch: Liu Xiang's injury has had commercial repercussions

Want to know what keeps a 110-metre hurdler awake at night? Fear of the stutter-step. This shortening of an athlete’s stride-length – immediately before a hurdle – results in a crucial loss of momentum.

China’s 2004 Olympic 110-metre gold medallist Liu Xiang has been through a stutter-step of his own since last year’s Beijing Olympics, albeit of a more commercial variety.

In a recent listing of sport stars who endorse brands – compiled late last year by Beijing Key Road Sports Consulting Company – Liu didn’t even make the top 10. His withdrawal through injury from the early heats at last year’s Olympiad has contributed to a decline in his sponsorship revenues too.

This is harsh. Surely there was no athlete under a greater weight of national expectation than Liu in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. It was hard not to feel sympathy as he limped forlornly from the track.

The financially-induced stress must have been high too. Zhang Wuchang, a local economist with a well-read blog, had forecast that the difference between Liu winning or losing could have reached Rmb1 billion ($146 million) in future earnings. Of course, Zhang had not calculated the impact of Liu actually dropping out.

Pre-August 2008, Liu’s star was in the commercial ascendant. The China Business Journal reported last week that the hurdler had endorsements with 14 brands in 2008, including well-known names like Coca Cola, Nike, VISA, Lenovo and Cadillac. These were lucrative arrangements; fees on the Coke deal grew from Rmb350,000 in 2003 to Rmb14 million by early 2008. Liu shares endorsement proceeds with the Chinese Athletics Association.

Following his Olympic withdrawal, Liu’s sponsors have mulled their options. A senior executive at Lenovo recently said it would not renew with Liu. China Business News also quoted sources at Amway Nutrilite saying it would not renew either. To be fair, the worsening economic conditions would surely have prompted a slide in endorsements for even the most triumphant of athletes, let alone one who has been sidelined by injury.

In fact some resourceful marketers are trying a new angle: Liu’s struggle to overcome recent setbacks. In a new Coke commercial launched over Lunar New Year, a subdued Liu is given advice by his (real life) father on the metaphorical hurdles that we must all negotiate in life. Shen Boping at Leo Burnett in Shanghai says the message is an optimistic one that seeks to raise the spirits of those who may have lost heart. An appropriate message, perhaps, for a wider audience in 2009.

This approach diverges from more traditional sports marketing spend in China, which has focused more on “buying the winners”, says Zhang Qing at Beijing Key Road Sports Consulting. In this context companies have been less concerned about long-term brand building, and more about capitalising on the brief euphoria of sporting success.

For Liu, circumstances are requiring a more creative approach. His main focus is on getting fit and returning to winning ways. If he does, it could well be time for advertisers to show him the money once again, as American footballer Rod Tidwell (from the American hit film Jerry Maguire) would no doubt concur.

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