WPIC Made for China Insights
Published on: November 29, 2023
Authentic local content, grassroots communities, and relevant influencers are captivating Chinese consumers, in stark contrast to generic glamour, international celebrity endorsements, and hyped events.
2023 has marked a pivotal year in consumer marketing and brand value creation in China. There have been some crucial shifts in consumer and brand behaviour, particularly in the dynamic athletic apparel and footwear sector. While the meteoric rise of Lululemon has captured much of the media attention, a fascinating comparison that illustrates these new trends is the relative performance of On Running and Adidas. On Running has experienced over eight consecutive quarters of substantial growth, while Adidas’ sales are down from three years ago.
Adidas CEO Bjørn Gulden acknowledges the challenge, stating: “We do of course know that our current performance is not good enough”. This statement raises a crucial question: Why have Adidas’ recent brand communications and product developments failed to resonate in China, leading to disappointing financial results?
While Adidas management often blames inflation and currency headwinds for their limited revenue growth in Asia, WPIC sees a different picture.
Adidas’ social media and digital marketing campaigns have become fragmented and often irrelevant to Chinese consumers. Once a trendsetter in China’s sports lifestyle, Adidas now seems to lean towards generic product promotions and Western trends, losing its earlier connection with local sport, fitness, and street culture.
Adidas’ social media engagement rates on platforms like Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) and Douyin lag behind competitors like Nike, New Balance, and notably, On Running. This is a reflection of uninspiring post themes, visuals, and influencer choices. Their focus on “Outfit of the Day” (OOTD) posts and collaborations irrelevant to Chinese consumers has resulted in a meagre average engagement rate of 0.27%.
Adidas in China has overlooked the importance of relatable localized content.
Their Chinese campaigns often mirror strategies used by Nike and other luxury brands, neglecting the unique needs and achievements of their Chinese customers and fans. The cancellation of Kanye West’s partnership was also a significant setback given the immense popularity of the Yeezy brand in China.
Current star-studded partnerships and a reliance on past successes like the Gazelle and Samba sneakers come across as predictable and outdated in a market craving fresh, grassroots energy.
Despite sponsoring numerous popular Chinese athletes, Adidas has struggled to leverage these partnerships effectively. Their “get to know the athlete” series, featuring basic Q&A sessions in informal settings, has not resonated with audiences. In contrast, Nike’s engaging posts with WNBA star Li Meng (李梦) have achieved engagement rates between 0.44% and 1.05%, dwarfing Adidas’s 0.01%–0.02% range.
In stark contrast, On Running has emerged as a refreshing force in China’s athletic shoe and apparel markets.
Following its successful US IPO, On Running has invested in communicating its unique brand voice and engineered product features across Chinese social media platforms and local events.
Their community-focused content, showcasing Chinese athletes and local running events, starkly contrasts with Adidas’s approach of reliance on international celebrity for glamorous branding. This marketing strategy has earned On Running an impressive 1.85% average engagement rate on Little Red Book. Their Douyin content, which showcases products in action in realistic settings, has achieved a strong 2.01% engagement rate.
On Running’s success in China is further underscored by financial performance. Their Asia-Pacific sales soared by 71.5% to US$47.3 million in the three months ending September 2022, and by 82% to US$122 million in the first nine months of 2023. Their direct-to-consumer revenues are outpacing traditional retail sales, and their social media fan base and engagement rates in China are rapidly growing.
On Running’s standard shoes, typically pricier than Adidas’s, have bolstered their premium status. Their expansion into tennis and hiking, as well as a broader range of apparel and accessories, echoes their success story in China and Asia. Collaborations with luxury brands that emphasizes design and lifestyle, such as LOEWE, also resonate well with Chinese consumers, evidenced by a 2.20% engagement rate on Little Red Book.
On Running has adopted some of the strategies that have propelled Lululemon to over 30% growth in revenue and profitability in China and the Asia-Pacific region. Like On, Lululemon’s success has come from a focus on product quality and cultivating local fan communities over glamour and generic endorsements.
More than any other brand, Lululemon has positioned itself at center of a lifestyle trend whereby young consumers are prioritizing their mental and physical wellbeing. Last month, Lululemon hosted its third annual “Wellbeing for All” campaign, a series of online and offline activations including workout classes, livestreamed talks with mental health experts, public art installations, and various community events.
Lululemon’s engaging collaborations and product releases on Chinese social platforms have resonated well with the Chinese audience. The hashtag “Wellbeing for All” was viewed nearly 4 million times on Little Red Book last month. Despite a shorter market presence and smaller revenue base compared to Adidas, Lululemon generates comparable buzz on platforms like Little Red Book.
At WPIC, we are committed to helping brands navigate the complexities of brand communications, digital marketing, social commerce, and community development in China and other Asian markets. Our method starts with targeted consumer and competitor research, ensuring that our creative and commercial campaigns and business plans are grounded in realistic insights and sustainable brand investments.
We invite you to share your brand challenges and experiences in the dynamic Asian market.
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