Kevin Garnett wore his affection for China's booming sportswear market on his back as the NBA star arrived in Beijing in August.
"Love China" declared the Boston Celtics power forward's T shirt. On the front: The angular red slash logo of Anta, the athletic shoe producer that brought Garnett to China for a weeklong promotional tour.
"Garnett in China is the definition of a basketball superstar. His image and influence among Chinese young people are very big," said Zheng Jie, Anta's senior vice president.
To reach worldly young Chinese consumers, the country's new but ambitious brands are scouring the globe for athletes, film stars and other celebrity spokespeople like Garnett who might have no personal link to China but are stars here.
Chinese companies' embrace of foreign spokespeople is especially striking in a country that had almost no advertising industry 20 years ago. But after three decades of breakneck economic growth, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that China should pass Japan by 2014 as the second-biggest advertising market after the United States.
China's advertising spending on TV, radio, newspapers and magazines rose 14 percent last year over 2008 to 597 billion yuan ($88 billion), according to research firm Nielsen Co. This rapid growth is also making China attractive as a business opportunity for sports stars and other celebrities.
"Lord of the Rings" star Orlando Bloom and English fashion model Agyness Deyn appear in advertising for Me & City, a 2-year-old Chinese fashion brand. NBA player Baron Davis and Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, a gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, smile down from billboards for Anta's sports gear rival, Li Ning.
Chinese companies that competed a decade ago on price alone are becoming more savvy about brand-building, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai.
"A lot of Chinese firms, like Anta, think being a good brand is having a global celebrity," Rein said. "It makes them feel they are more of premium brand and have a global image."
Anta, established in 1994, has 7,854 stores throughout China and hopes Garnett can help it achieve its goal of becoming the country's biggest seller of basketball-related products by 2013, Zheng said.
"He plays with a spirit of fearlessness and never gives up on court. This matches with the Anta spirit of 'keep moving,'" Zheng said.
During his visit, Garnett taught young fans ball-handling tricks at public appearances and visited Anta factories.
Garnett will appear in Anta TV commercials and the company plans to launch a "KG" line of shoes, clothes and accessories. Anta said Garnett will wear his "KG" shoes for NBA games next season and make annual return visits to China during his three-year contract.
Zheng declined to say how much the NBA star is being paid.
Garnett is not the company's first endorsed foreign celebrity, following NBA player Luis Scola and Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic.
Former NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury also plans to do marketing in China — for his own brand.
Marbury joined Shanxi Zhongyu of the Chinese Basketball Association last season and plans to sell his own line of "Starbury" athletic clothes and shoes with help from a company to be set up by his team.
Such celebrity links could help to reach Chinese consumers who a McKinsey & Co. survey released this month found to be "extremely brand conscious."
The consulting firm found 45 percent of 15,000 Chinese consumers surveyed think well-known brands are of better quality. That was up from 41 percent just three years ago and nearly triple the U.S. level of 16 percent.
Me & City hired Bloom and Deyn following an ad campaign last year starring Wentworth Miller of the American TV series "Prison Break." The company's sales revenue hit 1 billion yuan ($147 million) in 2009.
American fashion photographer Terry Richardson shot Bloom and Deyn's billboard ads.
Me & City's brand director, Zhou Long, said Deyn and Bloom were picked because she is the best-known model in China while his casual image fits the definition of success among Chinese consumers aged 25 to 35: "interesting, rather than boringly rich."
Zhou said the two stars' payment was "pretty high," but declined to give details.
Me & City is promoting an image that transcends national boundaries, with no Chinese equivalent for its English name and no reference to its roots in China. Zhou said the company would consider using Chinese celebrities if they fit its image.
"We are standing on a global platform, and we can use whoever we want — say, a London photographer, take pictures in Paris, find models in New York or celebrities in L.A.," Zhou said.
China's biggest domestic automaker, Chery Automobile Co., signed up Argentine football star Lionel Messi in April as its "international ambassador" to promote its premium Riich brand in China, Russia, Ukraine and Chile.
The 23-year-old FIFA Player of the Year 2009 appears on billboards in Beijing subway stations. Chery refused to say how much Messi is paid, but Chinese media say it could be as much as 5 million euro ($6.4 million).
Chery exports to 70 developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, and hopes to double foreign sales to 100,000 cars this year.
Some analysts questioned Chery's strategy, saying it was unclear what Messi will do for the company. They noted he failed to score at this year's World Cup in South Africa.
"It is not that simple for a company to succeed by just putting on some celebrities," said auto analyst Zhang Xin of Guotai Junan Securities in Beijing.
Internet companies also are jumping on the trend.
An online gamemaker, 9you, brought former Japanese porn star Sora Aoi to Shanghai for the June debut of its new game, Dungeon & Heroes. Aoi is popular in China even though her movies are banned and the government tries to block Internet users from seeing sexually explicit material.
Chinese companies can't necessarily afford top-tier global celebrities because most are tied into long-term contracts with global companies, said Anta's Zheng.
"But it doesn't mean we don't have chances in the future," Zheng said. "You have seen our aggressiveness and aspiration for development."
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