But what now for Brand Yao?

Updated: 2011-08-05 11:04

By Mike Bastin (China Daily European Weekly)

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The retired basketball player needs to start cashing in before it is too late

But what now for Brand Yao?

Yao Ming's position as an international brand has been well documented, as has his recent retirement from the greatest professional basketball league in the world. But does this mean an immediate and irreversible decline and devaluation of the Yao brand? Or indeed, could it open up opportunities that might lead to an even more pervasive and valuable brand?

Yao's nine-year NBA career really took off in 2003. Yao's spectacular emergence in 2003 led to total endorsement income for the year of more than 500 million yuan (54 million euros).

In January 2003, Yao signed a three-year advertising contract worth 30 million yuan with China Unicom. Soon after, in February 2003, Yao Ming and Gatorade signed a three-year contract worth $5 million.

Since 2003 Yao's list of company endorsements reads like a "who's who" in the corporate world. Most important though among this list is the fact that only Reebok can be categorized as a sports sponsorship deal. The likes of Pepsi, McDonalds, Apple as well as some of the most well-known Chinese companies such as China Life, offer huge financial attractions but at what cost to the Yao brand? For a brand to establish itself it needs clear positioning and a set of consistent values. This consistency is then essential if the brand is to remain successful over the long term - BMW represents "success", "power" while Coca-Cola represents "fun".

Yao has amassed a huge personal fortune but in so doing has not established clear positioning for Brand Yao. His brand has been built on sporting ability and success and, therefore, one might assume that the brand values include "healthy", "happy", "exciting", "agile", "fit", "skilful", "strong". Yet Coca-Cola and McDonald's are now more associated with "obesity", "lethargy" and, clearly, an extremely poor "fit" in any attempt at consistent branding for the Yao Brand.

Brand Beckham offers an insight here. Even at the earliest stages of David Beckham's footballing career, around the mid-1990s, he made a huge effort at presenting himself as more than a footballer. His fashionable taste in clothes and music were well publicized, and coupled with his natural good looks established Brand Beckham with far more than sporting brand values. Yao, on the other hand, lacks Beckham's looks and is not at all associated with "fashion" or "style".

Yao, despite huge success over many years at the Houston Rockets, has not cultivated any such Beckham-like image and even appears to lack any great charismatic appeal.

Looking forward Brand Yao needs to consider the following in order to establish itself as a truly global brand:

1. Establish a clear position for Brand Yao

All brands require a consistent set of values that rarely change over the years. Brand Yao should be no exception. Values such as "success", "skill" and "power" are firmly entrenched, however Yao desperately needs to add "warm", "friendly" and "entertaining" to his core basketball-related image if he is to maintain top-of-mind awareness and rise to global brand status.

2. Remain actively involved in sport

Learning from Beckham, who is now aiming to take part in the London Olympics next year as part of the British football team, it is imperative that Brand Yao maintains tangible links with his sporting success. While this may not involve playing at the highest level, Yao should keep fit and be seen on the basketball court if only occasionally. A Harlem Globetrotters-type team might be worth considering now. Ownership of his Shanghai-based team is insufficient, especially if he is not seen to be actively involved in coaching.

3. Choose celebrity endorsements carefully

Yao has most to learn here. Celebrity endorsements will nearly always increase brand awareness, for both the celebrity and the brand, but danger lies in the brand image impact. Yao is now well placed financially to be very selective with regard to future brand endorsements. Brands that also possess, or aspire to possess, similar brand values as those stated above should be considered only. Otherwise financial gain may have to be offset by a dilution of brand image. Clearly, sport and sport-related brands should dominate Yao's future portfolio of endorsements.

4. Improve charismatic appeal

Yao's compatriot Li Na oozes charisma in abundance. Li Na is Yao's role model here. Smiling and injecting moderate levels of humor into all media appearances is an absolute necessity if Yao is to remain as well known and engaging. Removal of Yao's NBA coverage and association is the biggest challenge to future brand development and requires Brand Yao to step up as an "entertaining", "exciting" personality.

5. Host a basketball/sports TV program

This needs to happen almost immediately before Yao's presence diminishes. Regular media appearances with well-known celebrities will enable Yao to develop the personality required to continue as a global brand. This will also allow Brand Yao to maintain a strong sporting association. Note that Yao must host such a program and not just appear as an expert pundit. Any superficial role will not prove sufficient for the brand to develop the much-needed personal values mentioned earlier.

Fundamentally, Brand Yao should aim to act as an ambassador for the new, modernizing China. Yao is excellently positioned to spread positive perceptions about his country and, therefore, boost brand China globally.

The author is a visiting British professor of brand management at China Agricultural University. The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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