Point of View: China’s Running Race

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In mid-2014, this column talked about the troubles of China’s sports brands in getting Chinese to put down their smartphones and do a bit of exercise. Whether it be outdoor hiking, swimming, soccer, basketball, while they are all growing, across the board, the incidence of people around China volunteering to exert themselves in the name of for-the-love-of-it sport remains very low. However, we may be witnessing the beginning of China’s own jogging revolution, akin to that which took hold of the US in the 1980s. Chinese are now running all over the place. And it is brands’ use of mobile media that has provided the necessary inspiration.

How things have changed. When I worked at Adidas several years ago, in order to create the impression that the Shanghai Marathon was popular, the Shanghai authorities had to call on the army and Communist Youth League to ‘fortify’ the number of runners participating. Tellingly, their heart wasn’t in it, as most of them dropped out after the first 5K.

Many outdoor activities faced significant ‘cultural obstacles’ to mass adoption. For example, most Chinese people don’t like sleeping in tents because this means sleeping on the ground and this is associated with much tougher times and people who can’t afford better. The joy of being close to nature is spoilt by the belief that only the poor need to be that close.

Running has historically had its own issues. A big issue was the cultural notion that only poor people have to run. If you have money, you walk and others will wait for you. Running was for people with no power, and low status. The other barrier was also cultural: for a collectivist society, the Western notion popularised by Nike was of the sole runner, pounding the road on their lonely, but heroic, pursuit of their own personal best. Their own soul.

But suddenly, running is cool. Last November’s Shanghai International Marathon attracted a respectable 35,000 entrants, up from 17,000 in the previous year. In fact, across 2015, the Chinese Athletic Association hosted 51 events around the country, inspiring nearly one million runners. And unlike in years gone by where many participants were seen running in kung fu slippers, the Chinese runner of today is wearing all the gear in technicolour splendour. The reason for the turnaround is that now, via personal, mobile technology, running has finally become a social connector.

The pioneer was Nike. Two years ago, it created its WeChat running club and since then, there has been an explosion and the trend is sufficiently strong to attract non-sports brands. Lenovo launched an H5 mobile site called ‘Lenovo Rock Run’ to promote its products by helping people to time their runs while providing them with music to inspire forward movement.

But it is the activities of New Balance that have triggered the tipping point. Over the past 18 months, it launched five separate running-focused social mediadriven initiatives. The first was a speed challenge. This HTML5 platform provided a fun way for people to compare their speed with different animals: turtles, pigs, horses, then for the faster of them, leopards and raptors. Speed scores are shareable.

Another initiative, translated awkwardly as ‘Although to run’, asked runners to participate in a running video developed by New Balance. Providing consumers with a way to boost their social fame is the driver here. Another, done by a separate agency, was seasonal and asked consumers to create and share their most loved summer running route. The suggested considerations were to take in the smells of street food cooked at night and children playing, to curate the most rewarding path.

And then famously, in China at least, New Balance sponsored the China Color Run. Using cartoons, the HTML5 platform asked runners to speculate on what would happen on their Color Run experience; the answer was to be found on the site.

While Nike has ruled the roost for some time in China with its mostly authentic brand of athletic passion, New Balance, through the way it has gone beyond sport into youth culture, has gained a new ascendancy and through it has created a jogging culture for reluctant runners.


This article was written by Ed Bell, chief executive officer FCB Greater China and originally appeared in WARC.