16 MAY. 2016

Fitness is the New Black: How Major Sportswear Brands are Riding the Chinese Workout Trend

Mathilde Veyrat

Following Chinese social media is not for the faint of the heart: hardly one week goes by without a new viral topic taking the digital landscape by storm. Lately, a series of “skinny challenges” have stirred up heated discussions among Chinese netizens, particularly among post-80s and 90s women. The dark side of this trend includes the so-called “belly button”, “A4 waist” and “iPhone 6 legs” challenges.

But the fitness craze that’s spread across the country in the last few months goes much wider than this.

Since the Song dynasty, Chinese ideals of beauty have always been associated with frail, thin silhouettes – until recently. Now, a large contingent of Chinese women are adopting exercises like push-ups and weight lifting, seeking a more overall healthful body and lifestyle.   

Where does this “Fitness Fever” come from?

  • Rising expendable income in China’s middle class leads to more spending on leisure and entertainment activities, i.e. gyms, yoga, and training classes.
  • Healthier lifestyles have become a central focus for many Chinese urbanites, who are already willing to pay premiums for imported baby milk formula, organic juices, and air purifiers. Working out naturally coincides with this mega-trend.
  • Chinese women are becoming less concerned with traditional definitions of “Eastern Beauty” and more focused on their own definitions of beauty.

International sports giants Nike and Adidas were quick to predict the rising popularity of fitness and developed campaigns targeted towards wooing savvy female millennials. Here we take a look at how they fine-tuned their branding messages to capitalize on this ongoing trend.


In 2015, Nike launched its “Better for It” campaign meant to spark women’s interest in sports. In China, the brand localized its TV ads under the tagline “只为更赞” (Better for it): contrary to the Western advertisements that follow everyday women in their yoga or spinning sessions, Chinese promotional videos feature female influencers like actress Wang Luodan relating to the frustrations of every day exercise. The result is a highly relatable ad that illustrates the love-hate relationship many have with working out, all the while driving home an aspirational message.

More recently, Nike tapped into the potential of storytelling as it unveiled an 8-episode web series focused on Margot and Lily, two adopted sisters with diametrically opposed personalities: Margot is an outgoing but recently unemployed young urbanite while Lily is an influential fitness vlogger with poor social skills. For the New Year, they engage in a sibling competition and challenge each other to go out of their own comfort zones – an adventure that is ripe with laughter.

This long-form video content shows an intimate way to connect with everyday female customers in China.

But the experience doesn’t stop here: at the end of each episode, viewers are invited to download the Nike Training Club app for additional workout tips and are encouraged to follow the brand’s official WeChat page to share their accomplishments and progress.

Nike Women stores are the culmination of digital campaigns, targeted brand messaging and opportunity in a high-growth segment. As of 2016, the brand had opened three women’s only stores around the world, one of which is in the busiest shopping artery of Shanghai.

Nike Women stores are not simple retail outlets but rather offer bespoke services with professional coaches, providing on-site group training experiences and monthly Nike+Training Club events. Overall, Nike’s brand perception is that of a trusted partner that accompanies women in the various steps of their fitness journey.


The German giant was among the first brands to target the health-conscious female segment of the Chinese market, with a very different narrative from its main competitor. Back in 2013, Adidas expanded its worldwide “All in for my girls” campaign in China under the slogan “以姐妹之名,全倾全力” (All in for my girls) to pique Chinese women’s interest in fitness through sisterhood. A year later, the brand came back with a new slogan “有姐妹,没有不可能“ (With my girls, nothing is impossible). This campaign featured Taiwanese singer Hebe Tian and her “sisters” as they happily enjoy yoga classes and bike around the city together. Rather than emphasizing effort, competition or performance Adidas explains fitness in the context of a fun, entertaining way to spend time with friends – just like having a shopping trip or an afternoon tea.

Adidas is progressively shifting its positioning alongside market trends, as it recently revealed its “Creating the New” vision for 2020. Chinese female consumers are indeed becoming more mature and sophisticated and are not merely interested in hanging out with friends in stylish sportswear, but are increasingly keen on tracking their performances and achieving results.

The brand’s latest campaign in China debuted last month under the tagline “由我创造” (I’m Here to Create), starring a number of local female athletes like tennis icon Coco Xu, Olympic race walker Liu Hong and fitness enthusiast actress Janine Chang. Each advertisement is a mix of professional footage, personal videos and stills from the celebrity’s own social media meant to empower women. Adidas is calling on their creative spirit to reshape the definition of sports and encourage them to push their boundaries.

Alongside this offline campaign, Adidas has launched an interactive digital campaign inviting fans to upload their best workout selfie to create a personalized poster that could be shared on Weibo or WeChat. One winner will be chosen as the brand ambassador for the “I’m here to Create” campaign, with their selfie covering billboards and ad space all around Shanghai.


Fitness is more than ever a sunrise industry that can benefit brands who understand one fact: Chinese women are not attracted by purely functional and fashionable benefits, but are starting to embrace a completely new lifestyle. Successful brands will thus be the ones who deliver engaging, relatable cross-channel campaigns that leverage this workout trend through digital activation.

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