Fitness on the Increase as Brands Target Chinese Consumers

26 Oct 2015|dimitropoulosp

China is starting to witness a rapid growth in the area of sport and fitness as consumers start to display a new found desire to exercise and keep fit. Alongside an increase in health awareness in recent years, there has been a significant rise in the numbers of Chinese taking up running, joining a gym and even practicing yoga. This has created new opportunities for companies to enter the market and attract the increasingly wealthy Chinese consumers. Global sports brands like Adidas and Nike have increased their marketing efforts in China and with a more sophisticated digital ecosphere and technological advances this new trend is quickly driving consumer awareness and demand for new products from sports apparel to health supplements to performance and health tracking gadgets. A better understanding of the changing culture and consumer attitudes towards sport and fitness in China will open the door for brands that want to innovate and attract this growing segment of consumers.

Despite the fact that blue collar manual labor has always been associated with lower social status and related health problems, China is realizing that the white collar dream also comes with its own strains and pains. As China’s international standing strengthens, the allure of, and reliance on, western innovation is fading. A new national sense of confidence and a stronger economy is driving more Chinese to seek a more balanced and healthier lifestyle. In the past, exercise in China has always been a popular outdoor social event, mainly involving walking and traditional forms of martial arts particularly with the older generation, but despite the economic boom, China’s younger middle class, especially those in first tier cities have been a little slow to pick it up. Other sporting activities which are already vastly popular in western countries are yet to be adopted with the same passion by Chinese people. However, busy urban living is now subjecting Chinese people to increasing amounts of pressure, and efforts to stay healthy are becoming more prevalent than ever. The flexing media has also permitted more transparency regarding food safety scandals and air pollution levels. As a result, people in China are increasingly aware of the impact of the worsening environmental conditions to their everyday lives, and are starting to take matters into their own hands. Coupled with the rapid escalation of Internet exposure since 1994, and more than 600 million Internet users, consumers are now getting more prolonged exposure to both the positive and negative aspects of global culture. An increase in health awareness among Chinese consumers in recent years has prompted the rapid development of the gym, fitness and health industry in China which is predicted to reach USD5.2 billion in 2015.

Despite the fact that gyms or fitness clubs began to appear in China a few decades ago the industry had seen little development until recent years as consumers start to change their perceptions of leading a fitter and healthy lifestyle. Chinese people have become more conscious of the need to exercise and be more active and this is made clear in the growth statistics measuring the frequency of exercise. According to data from CTR China National Resident Survey the number of Chinese people who exercise 3-5 times per week has increased by 5% between 2012 and 2014, and those who work out 2-3 times per month shows significant growth at 9%.


Data from CTR China National Resident Survey (CNRS-TGI)

Many people in China believe good health is the key to achieving their personal goals as well as helping them financially and socially. This new appetite for a healthier lifestyle has caused a surge in the number of people joining gyms and sports clubs which has also opened new opportunities for companies operating in these categories. In line with China’s ongoing battle with pollution, there has been a trend of people opting to stay indoors to exercise, with many gyms installing air purifiers to attract new customers.


Data from CTR China National Resident Survey (CNRS-TGI)

Overall there is now a much more positive outlook on the category of sport and fitness in China, and its potential to grow in the coming years. With a recent surge in the number of running events taking place in China, including more than 50 marathons in 2015 alone, companies like Adidas have seen a rise in demand for sports apparel, especially running gear. The underlying culture of sports in China is changing rapidly and more and more people are starting to participate in different activities on a regular basis. At the same time, consumers are looking for products which will maximize their performance as well as look good in front of their peers. In 2014 alone, Adidas sold 1.1 million pairs of its Boost running shoes and trainers.


Data from CTR China National Resident Survey (CNRS-TGI)

When it comes to regular exercise in China, running shows a strong increase with more than 87% of Chinese adopting the sport between 2012 and 2014. In the 25-35 year old age group running has grown massively in popularity by 140% over the last 2 years. More niche activities like Yoga have also grown rapidly with almost 150% growth in the last two years, as well as mountaineering at 42%. There has also been a significant trend among 15-24 year olds to try new sports that were of little interest in China a few years ago such as golf (up 71%) and tennis (up 60%).

Furthermore, we are also seeing more brands offer tech performance-tracking devices to its consumers as the area of fitness starts to open new doors across multiple areas from clothing to technology.

Wearable devices help people who are exercising to monitor their performance, run faster and prevent injuries. Many companies are now trying to enter this rapidly growing space where fitness and wearable products are in high-demand. Xiaomi’s MI Wristband for instance, is available in six different colors to satisfy the preferences of its female consumers. In 2015-16, the wearable products sector is expected to grow dramatically in Asia with Chinese consumers predicated to be one of the most in-demand growth segments. Overall these technological advances are allowing individuals to take more control and responsibility for their health through tracking of eating, sleeping, and exercise behaviors which is again opening new opportunities for new and existing brands in this market.

Physical and mental well-being has long been anchored in prevention of energetic imbalance and resulting discomfort but accelerated economic development is bringing about urban safety hazards – ranging from environmental (pollution, radiation) to economic (food & product safety) – which is raising the importance of protecting one’s health and the need to perform regular exercise and keep fit. Semiotics takes a prominent place in research as one of the most effective tools for more innovative brands to better understand this sector as well as the changing dynamics within communication and culture in China. Semiotics looks at signs and symbols through the lens of culture and how they shape consumers’ perceptions and understanding. It treats all that it analyses as equal cultural texts: forms of communication conveying cultural meanings. In this way, branding can effortlessly blend in with culture: advertising can be easily inspired by animation, product packaging can be guided by architectural design, retail spaces can simulate art gallery spaces and so on. Semiotics is the key activator of a brands’ CSP (Cultural Selling Proposition) – from the formulation of deep insight to the creation of clearer creative briefs – semiotics ties strategies to executions to ensure cultural relevance, clarity and freshness. Brands that want to seize new opportunities and win in China must start to place culture higher on their marketing agenda.

“Written by Panos Dimitropoulos, Account Director of Cultural Insight, and Sam Woollard, Client Development Director, with support from the Added Value China team.”

*Data collected from: CTR China National Resident Survey (CNRS-TGI)

Contact: Added Value Shanghai Office, T: +86 (21) 3612 6666, Email:

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