This article was written by Ed Bell, CEO of FCB Greater China and originally appeared on WARC.
If only young Chinese women had taken to sports with the same enthusiasm as they have for public square dancing, China’s sport brands would have saved themselves a lot of heartache and been a lot more successful in inspiring participation. Given the success of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’, the question has to be asked ‘are China’s girls really different from those of the West or are China’s sports brands just not getting it?’
Somehow, China’s girls have no problem in finding the right excuse to put off the idea of playing sport. They will tell you that they are still ‘young and healthy’ and ‘don’t need sport’, or ‘they are too busy’, or, perhaps more honestly, that they just don’t want to look like a sweaty rat. Although it keeps fiddling with its global strategy, Adidas China has held the same line on sport and women for 10 years now. Its strategy has been to position sport for women as a social activity, as seen in recent campaigns – ‘In the name of Sisterhood’ and ‘With sisters, nothing is impossible…’. In the eyes of Adidas, social connection trumps the person performance imperative – a ‘sports light’ experience that owes more to Sex and the City than a City Fun Run.
The old nemesis, Nike, has been similarly steadfast in holding onto its ‘authentic sports’ approach. The ‘just do it spirit’ – which is now quite famous in China – is fairly and squarely delivered to men and women with equal fervour. Unlike the pop singers hired to represent Adidas, Nike’s headliners are people such as Grand Slam winner Li Na, a lady the whole nation has loved for her toughness and grace, despite significant sweatiness.
And Nike has backed it up with several activation programmes, such as its weekly NTC training courses offered at its Nike Women’s experiential stores, that take women running right around the country. And the company has been quite strong to take the activations mobile via innovation. In addition to the Nike+ that we know, in China they have also used Weibo and WeChat to offer 12-week transformative plans and ’21-day shaping plans’ for summer (body) preparation.
These two brands have had the men’s and women’s market more or less sewn up since inception. The local Chinese sports brands remain locked in the dungeon by consumers who tend to only buy them provided the prices remain low and tend to ‘trade up’ as soon as their finances permit. When it came to engineering your sports image, the question was ‘Adidas or Nike?’
But there is an upset in the big China sports game. As they have done in the West, New Balance and Under Armour are creating waves in China by challenging the ‘authenticity’ of the increasingly mass major labels.
Whereas Nike focused on recruiting women into running and growing the pie, as seen with its campaign about discovery (‘You’ll know once you run’), New Balance positions itself as a brand that ‘masters running’, teaching runners to ‘run right’.
And they have also managed to keep it creative and dynamic with a ‘Color Run’ sponsorship. And as if in a pincer movement of authenticity, Under Armour, the new hard brand of sport, is rising quickly in China. Store numbers have doubled in the past two years and, unlike the very macho Under Armour of the US, Under Armour China is bringing a distinctly feminine sense with its focus on yoga, but with a strong determination underpinned with the brand line ‘I will’. And, like New Balance, it is building its brand from social media and performance-oriented training events up. Not a pop singer in sight.
So, if the past 10 years were the ‘first set’ of competition, the ‘second set’ has just begun. And a whole new set of players are on the field. With the rising desire for authenticity in China, and new entrants enticing the market away from ‘bubblegum sports’, the different ‘girl sports’ strategies seem to be a challenge of satisfying the current mindset versus the emerging need. And in a country that is besotted with progression, I wouldn’t like to be the brand that isn’t leading consumers to their ‘next step’.