What Sports Fashion Brands Need to Know to Crack the Chinese Market

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For sports fashion brands, China is the biggest league there is.

After all, there are 1.4 billion people in China, and a lot of them want to keep up with the latest trends and developments in sports fashion. In fact, from the 2012-2017 period, sportswear sales in China grew even faster than sales of luxury goods.

There are a lot of different factors that make the Chinese market unique from a marketing perspective. Unfortunately, many brands aren’t aware of these factors, and as a result they miss out on great marketing opportunities. That’s why we’re here to help you out!

In this article, we’ll round off our exploration of sports fashion trends with a deep-dive into the Chinese market. We’ll show you the two main strategies for sports fashion brands to compete in China, and how brands can put these strategies to use.

With our help, you’ll be able to tailor your content to suit different Chinese social platforms, and shape your marketing strategies to match what Chinese sports fashion tribes care about.

What makes China such a big deal in sports fashion?

There’s a great reason leading sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas have focused more of their marketing efforts on China. In fact, there are a bunch of reasons:

  • The size of the Chinese market: The sheer number of consumers in China makes the country a key player in the sports fashion industry, especially given the explosion in Chinese middle-class consumers since the early 2000s.
  • Trend-setting: A lot of global trends in sports fashion (e.g. the popularity of athleisure products) either start in China or gather momentum within the country’s active and engaged consumer groups.
  • Social media environment: The social media environment in China is changing at an incredible rate, and this includes plenty of platforms relevant to sports fashion brands. More on this below.

And for the big players, their focus on the Chinese market is paying off, with both Nike and Adidas showing double-digit growth in their sales in recent years.

Local knowledge of the Chinese market is crucial

Any good marketer knows that as important as it is to know your product, it’s even more important to know your market. This is more important in China than perhaps any other market on the planet.

Recently, the NBA found itself in a tough spot concerning Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey’s tweets commenting on the Hong Kong democracy protests. Eventually, the league apologized to China for what it described as an “inappropriate comment” from Morey.

As this example shows, national tempers can flare up when commercial sports interests collide with local political developments and social movements.

NBA products on sale in Beijing in October 2019. Source: CNBC

This shows the crucial importance of deep and nuanced local knowledge when it comes to brand communications and marketing. Companies need to anticipate exactly how their actions will be perceived in the Chinese market, and how this may affect their brand equity.

So, how can sports fashion brands crack the Chinese market?

For sports fashion brands and companies looking to make inroads into the Chinese market, there are two main strategies to match content to local values, expectations, and preferences:

  1. Tailor content to suit different Chinese social media platforms
  2. Match your marketing approach with Chinese sports fashion tribe values

Let’s jump into this first strategy.

Strategy #1: Tailor sports fashion content to suit different Chinese social media platforms

As we’ve noted in our guide to China’s social media landscape, China’s digital environment is fragmented, diverse, and changing from day to day. In fact, it’s changing at a rate that is difficult to comprehend for audiences outside of the country.

This makes it crucial for sports fashion brands to understand what makes each Chinese social platform different, and how to engage users on each specific platform.

Let’s take a look at how top sports fashion brands are using these platforms to engage consumers.

How Nike uses WeChat

As China’s most popular social messaging app, WeChat boasts an active user base of over 1 billion people. That’s a staggering amount of consumers within the Chinese market.

Even more importantly for sports fashion brands, WeChat offers what it calls ‘mini-programs’, which are specialized apps within the platform. These apps can be tailored for specific advertising campaigns, which is great news for brands wanting to engage Chinese consumers.

Nike has used WeChat to engage Chinese consumers since 2012. Source: Digitas

No other sports fashion brand has used WeChat to engage Chinese consumers quite like Nike. An early adopter of the platform, Nike has been offering Chinese WeChat users great content (including shoe collections personalized for each user) since all the way back in 2012.

This activity has helped drive Nike’s incredible results within the Chinese market, and shows the value of engaging Chinese consumers on their platforms of choice.

How Uniqlo uses TikTok (Douyin)

If you didn’t know about TikTok before, chances are you know about it now. With 500 million active monthly users around the world, this video sharing platform has gone from small beginnings to being the world’s most downloaded app in early 2019.

For sports fashion brands - especially brands wanting to make their mark in China - these numbers make TikTok a big deal.

TikTok’s focus on fast, engaging content has won it a huge following with younger users, particularly under 25s. Given these users are the same demographic often responsible for trends in sports fashion, TikTok offers great opportunities for brands to engage Chinese users.

Uniqlo’s TikTok campaign was a great way to engage teen consumers. Source: YPulse

That’s why sports fashion brands have been taking notice of TikTok. For example, in early 2019, fashion brand Uniqlo sought to engage a younger audience with a multi-country TikTok campaign. This campaign has helped to drive brand visibility in key markets.

How Louis Vuitton uses Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu)

The Little Red Book, or Xiaohongshu, is a great example of how fast Chinese social media is changing. Created a mere five years ago, Xiaohongshu has grown to occupy a central spot with Chinese online shoppers, and now boasts over 60 million dedicated users.

The platform focuses on the power of product recommendations from knowledgeable users sharing detailed, informed content. For sports fashion brands (particularly luxury brands) wanting to engage the most dedicated consumers, Xiaohongshu is an incredible resource.

Louis Vuitton’s Xiaohongshu campaign. Source: WWD

That’s why luxury brand Louis Vuitton uses Xiaohongshu to engage the Chinese market for high-end sports fashion. With Xiaohongshu, Louis Vuitton has an opportunity to deliver content directly to a young, urban, and primarily female user base.

These three examples demonstrate the opportunities for sports fashion brands to tailor content to suit different Chinese social media platforms. Now, let’s take a look at our second strategy: matching brand marketing with Chinese sports fashion tribe values.

Strategy #2: Match your marketing approach with Chinese sports fashion tribe values

As with all marketing, sports fashion marketing is becoming more targeted and tailored. It’s no longer enough to engage a broad audience with generic messages - instead, people want companies to relate to them on an individual basis. This is true in the Chinese market, too.

That’s why companies are focusing more on what Seth Godin calls “the smallest viable audience”. Instead of casting the net wide, companies are forming fruitful and lasting relationships with niche audiences of fans and customers.

The key to achieving this in China? Knowing who your most important consumer tribes are, and matching your marketing strategies with their values, habits, and preferences.

Let’s take a look at a couple of case studies to show you exactly what we mean.

Chinese Gen Z women love to share their workout inspirations

In our upcoming report on Gen Z’s love affair with sports fashion, we found an interesting trend with local consumer tribes in China: Chinese Gen Z women are particularly fond of sharing their workout inspirations, habits, and challenges.

This includes offering advice for other active women, inspiring others with eye-catching photos, sharing tips for great sports fashion products, and celebrating progress towards goals.

As with other key markets, users in China engage strongly with this kind of content. We can see this in the amount of engagement with model and influencer Ming Xi’s gym posts, like this one:

However, it’s not just the top-tier influencers sharing their workout inspiration on social media - our report found a dedicated and active group of Gen Z users in China posting about their sports passions. These include yoga, boxing, running, and plenty of other activities.

For sports fashion brands paying attention, the content shared by these users offers a great way to shape marketing approaches.

By knowing exactly what these tribes of niche social media users care about - for example, durable, attractive, and long-lasting gym gear - these brands can pitch their products more successfully, increase their exposure to Chinese consumers, and win over new fans.

Chinese sneakerheads care a lot about comfortable, eye-catching shoes

Our sports fashion report also found another interesting observation about the niche tribe of Chinese sneaker fans. They want their shoes to be light, comfortable, and durable - like pretty much every sneaker fan in the world.

But the most important thing about Chinese sneakerheads? They also want their shoes to be bold and striking.

Nike’s colourful lines have found a niche fan base in China. Source: Nike

This trend helps explain why colourful lines like the Nike Air Jordans released for the Chinese New Year in 2016 have found such a dedicated fan base in China, and why other eye-catching models from Adidas, Balenciaga and others have also done so well there.

For sports fashion brands, knowing Chinese sneakerheads’ appetite for bold and colourful lines unlocks a lot of opportunities in marketing and product development. By shaping content to suit these preferences, footwear companies can make a greater impact in the Chinese market.

Know what sets the Chinese sports fashion market apart

Trends and habits in sports fashion are always changing - especially in China’s market of almost 1.4 billion people.

For global sports fashion brands looking to crack the Chinese market, it’s crucial to know how your customers are communicating with each other, and what they like to see when it comes to tailored and engaging content.

That’s why brands need to know their medium of choice, and know what customers care about the most, whether it’s bold, striking sneakers, or sharing gym inspiration.

The best way to find this information? Use social intelligence tools to build familiarity with your most important markets, and shape your marketing strategies to match what your target consumers are looking for.

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