Sports and the Chinese Customer

Nike, as the Wall Street Journal reports, plans to expand its sales in China greatly. The only problem? Everyday sports for recreation are not what Chinese do… and so, Nike needs to “alter ideas of fashion and help foster a culture of everyday-citizen sports.

If only it were that simple.

The case of the sports industry in China nicely illustrates how it is not just people who want to be ‘at home’ somewhere. Companies also need to make themselves ‘at home’ if they are to reach their customers. Local contexts, however, can differ greatly, and have to be understood deeply.

China is a particularly interesting case, not just because it always tends to be interesting (“more than a billion potential customers” and all that), but because different threads of tradition and development intersect here to form a rich tapestry of desires, demands, and deeply divergent day-to-day living.

First and foremost, Chinese tend to be a very health-conscious people. No matter if rich or poor, young or old, there are ways in which the issue tends to surface.
That may sound like great news for sports companies, but, given the long cultural tradition, it predominantly surfaces in well-established ways: when it comes to eating, and in the exercising that students are forced to do and older people engage in.

Running has been getting more popular as a hobby and health/fitness practice. Even in the third-tier city university where I used to teach, there was quite a number of runners (even leaving the students in ROTC-like military training out of the picture). However, as a sports practice that everyone can easily do, it is seen as a rather “poor” form of sports – if you have no other chance, you do that. As soon as there are other possibilities with more cachet, those are generally preferred.

Social perception also matters in another way: As long as running clothes (tights and such) are seen as something to shake your head at, they won’t be worn. (From personal experience: running in my usual attire, not least with CW-X training tights, drew lots of comments and took quite some emotional strength even for me.)

It is only – incidentally like Western fast food – with the rising popularity of fitness training and sports as seen as part of the Western way of living that running may be gaining in social value. So, as running and (other) outdoor and action sports come to be understood as ‘developed’ (showing a more modern, oftentimes more Western, lifestyle), they may rise to greater prominence.
Younger people are typically more open to such developments. They, however, simply do not have much money to spend on it. The typical student runner wears a T-Shirt and cotton pants, if not jeans…

The people who have the money may be the examples others try to emulate, but even they are very much influenced by the social capital that their lifestyles represent and enhance.

In this way, expensive wristwatches have come to symbolize wealth, while the average young person only uses his/her mobile phone for timekeeping; Louis Vuitton bags have come to represent a young adult’s entry into the middle class, and the perceived classiness of the brand has made its logo appear everywhere.

Sports brands have a hard time in this. They do not stand in for their wearer’s active lifestyle; the emotional connection with adventure or action so important in Western consumer’s minds seems to be completely missing in China (as most brand features are).

The only way they may be present in daily life so far, when it comes to use and social value, may be in their representing young and Western fashion, as Nike and Adidas very much do. These brands also gained great popularity for it, but will have a hard time establishing sports as a way of life quite as it is in the West.

Pragmatic considerations are not out of the picture, however. Doing something for one’s health and fitness is a well-supported idea – to the point of the government giving support to the notion because the body politic is seen to reflect the health of the very country.

For the women, in particular, weight management is very much on the minds. Looks and the social capital they give can be a competing concern, however: running is rather too tiring for many, and a woman wouldn’t want to have too muscularly shaped a body, let alone get a tan from spending too much time outdoors.

Sports that are considered more valuable are either those like yoga, which has been very popular recently because of perceived health effects (for women), racquet sports which are quite easy to get into and have some support already, or the likes of club-organized sports (from racquet sports via golf to gym memberships and dancing), from which you get possible health/fitness effects, the cachet of the sport, as well as, potentially, the exclusivity of an expensive membership.

A sport like running also suffers from the simple, but painful, impact of pollution. University campuses and urban parks may offer nice places for going for a run. Dense cityscapes or countryside areas would make it too difficult, simply for traffic problems in the first case, and for lack of social acceptance in the second. Effects of pollution on health and looks (healthy skin!) are a grave concern nearly everywhere.

A kind of trickle-down effect, as with the LV bags that have moved strongly into the grasp of middle class-ness, may be occurring, though. Young, (rather upper-)middle class Chinese are increasingly interested not just in the cachet that travel in general can bring, but also in the enjoyment of the great outdoors (both in-country and foreign). A look into any of the Sanfo Outdoor Goods stores and at the interested people shopping there is quite an eye-opener in this regard.

Here, enjoyment of the outdoors comes together with the social capital of travel, the fun and fitness aspects of physical activity, and the nimbus that may have started to appear around the proper gear and knowledge of the same. It is often, so far at least, Chinese who have been heavily exposed to outside influence (most likely, who even lived outside of China for quite some time) who take on such a lifestyle.

So, yes. As the New York Times only just pointed out, there is a chance that “China’s Next Revolution Is In Fitness” – and sports companies certainly would like that.
It will only be so if participation in sports is supported and products are marketed in ways which chime with the quest for health, beauty, and fun (in their Chinese incarnations), and with the desire to do what is helpful to one’s social standing. Chinese, no matter how much more individualistic than the popular caricature of “The Chinese” they may be, are still not “individualistic Westerners,” after all.

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