Benefiting from the growing health awareness among the middle class, the sportswear market in China is rising steadily. The retail value of the sportswear market in China reached CNY316.6 billion in 2019 with current value growth of 17%. While the big names Nike and Adidas have been dominating the market with over 40% market share, domestic brands including Anta and Li Ning had witnessed dynamic growth in 2019. It’s projected that the sportswear market in China will grow at an 11% current value CAGR to reach CNY542.5 billion in 2024.
Data source: Euromonitor (2020), designed by daxue consulting, The sportswear market in China is fairly concentrated with the top three brands taking up over half of the market share. The majority of sportswear brands have gained high brand awareness in the Chinese sportswear market.
Leading players invest in technological innovation to bring functional sportswear to the next level
Among all categories of sportswear, performance footwear is the most dynamic with current value growth of 23%. This is not surprising as most brands in the sportswear market are known for their footwear. Leading players continued to invest in new product development with an eye on technological innovation. For instance, Nike introduced the adaptive shoe lacing system through its HyperAdapt range, which electronically adjusts to the contours of your foot, providing a customized fit. The rising domestic brand Anta introduced A-FlashFoam tech featured in its running shoes, providing strong cushioning and support for the foot during running.
Image Source: Left: Nike News, Nike’s self-lacing shoes. Right: Anta Facebook, Anta’s A-FlashFoam running shoes. Leading companies compete heavily on the footwear market, focusing on new technology.
Alongside innovative footwear, there is also innovation in textiles for sports clothes, especially among niche sportswear brands. For example, Columbia recently promoted its sporting clothes featuring Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective Technology in China. Other brands such as Patagonia and Allbirds also tapped into the niche consumer needs of environmental-friendly materials among eco-conscious consumers.
How foreign brands localize to create more direct and personal connections with Chinese consumers
With more domestic brands entering the market as cheaper alternatives to foreign brands, there is a growing appreciation of domestic brands, supported by a renewed sense of national pride among younger consumers. Additionally, the top KOLs in live streaming have turned to promote domestic brands more often. Therefore, it requires foreign brands to localize more than ever before to create a more direct and personal connection with Chinese consumers.
Nike has been a living embodiment of a successful localized branding strategy to better reach local consumers with more customized marketing. Early this year, Nike launched the first Lunar New Year commercial, The Great Chase. The ad is a big success on social media, reaching 4.8M views after 2 weeks.
Image Source: Wieden+Kennedy website, Nike collaborated with an independent American advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy to produce localized campaigns for the China’s market. Wieden+Kennedy is also best known for its work for Nike, including the recent “For Once, Don’t Do It” ad addressing racism in America and the “You Can’t Stop Us” campaign that has created another viral hit.
Domestic brands are going international to upgrade brand image
Chinese brands were once viewed as unfashionable low quality. One explanation was that many Chinese brands tended to apply a grassroots approach, starting from lower-tier cities, and rapidly established its expansive distribution network in those areas. They aimed at an economy of scale that was supported by the large population in lower-tier cities, hence, the quality was compromised. However, as more Chinese brands set about renewing brand image to leverage the growing middle-class and the premiumization trend, they turned to expand their profile to go premium. This was exemplified by many domestic automakers and skincare brands that have expanded their profile to premium offerings. Hence, the perceptions of domestic brands are changing thanks to the collaborative measures of Chinese brands and rising cultural confidence.
How athleisure brands are riding the Guochao wave
Moreover, there’s also a growing “Guochao” (国潮) trend over the last few years. Guochao is a term to describe a rising group of homegrown fashion brands who were making Chinese nationalism trendy. iQIYI (爱奇艺), one of the largest Chinese online video platform with over 500M MAU, even produced a serial online reality show FOURTRY, wherein a group of celebrities went to Tokyo, Japan, and opened up a fashion boutique to promote youth trend culture and export Guochao designs. Moreover, domestic e-commerce giants, Alibaba, JD.com, and NetEase also put forward Guochao-themed shopping festivals.
Image Source: JD.com, Leading e-commerce platforms are promoting domestic brands more often. National pride narrative has become both commercially viable and politically encouraged.
Against the backdrop of changing perceptions and the Guochao trend, local sportswear brands such as Anta and Li Ning focuse on fusing sports and fashion and promote through international platforms. Li Ning debuted its collections at New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. Anta also launched Guochao-inspired collabs to attract young consumers. The latter is also the partner of the Chinese delegation for the 2024 Paris Olympics, as well as the official partner of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Having resources of international sports events is likely to help brands gain a presence globally and improve brand image.
Image Source: Sohu.com, Local brand Li Ning is leading the Guochao trend and debuted its collections at New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week.
Emerging brands take up a niche in the sportswear market
The market has witnessed emerging brands taking up a niche in the sportswear market in China. Supported by the growing popularity of yoga and Pilates, the Canadian athletic apparel brand Lululemon managed to gain a niche consumer market with its functional plus symbolic products. Known for using eco-friendly materials for their offerings, Allbirds and Patagonia have also gained traction among a group of eco-conscious consumers.
Prospect of the sportswear market in China
Although functionality still remains crucial in decision making when it comes to sportswear, differentiated branding is likely to become more important. That is to say that when the majority of sportswear brands managed to meet the need of functionality, what the brand presents that is relevant to their target customers is likely to be a key factor in consumers’ decision making. This requires brands to create more customized connections with their targeted segments, not just by selling through e-commerce channels or promoting through social platforms which most brands have been doing.