CEO of Adidas, Bjørn Gulden, calls 2023 “A year of transition to put the pieces back together again.” China is a vital piece of that puzzle, and the German sportswear brand is undergoing a strategic re-focus aimed at forging deeper local connections with young Chinese consumers.
Amid the COVID-19 disruptions and the rising guochao (national tide) fervor that fueled the growth of homegrown sportswear brands, Adidas saw a decline in its Greater China revenue for six consecutive quarters. Nevertheless, as China recovers from the pandemic, this could be the ideal moment for the brand to stage a comeback with its thoughtfully-crafted China narrative.
Adidas charts its China comeback with actor Chen Xiao
True to its brand message, “Impossible is Nothing,” Adidas has been gearing up with a revived China strategy that doubles down on localization initiatives to position the brand: “In China, for China.” Hoping to win over China’s powerful Gen Z consumers and ride the Guochao wave, Adidas intends to demonstrate a deep understanding and respect for Chinese traditional culture and integrate into China’s sporting culture at a grassroots level.
“Adidas must insist on younger products, younger consumer experience, younger brand marketing, younger community empowerment, and younger team talents; only in this way can Adidas stay younger,” says Adrian Siu, who took over the role of Adidas Greater China’s managing director from Jason Thomas last March.
Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of German-China diplomatic relations last November, Adidas signed a strategic alliance with the China Literature and Art Foundation, an organization affiliated with the China Federation of Literary & Art Circles (CFLAC) that promotes Chinese culture and traditional values. It’s a shrewd move to align the brand at a diplomatic level, marrying culture, sport and design.
The three-year partnership includes a series of charity and university programs and cultural activities under the banner “Century Masters.” Adidas will pay tribute to those who have made outstanding contributions to Chinese sports and education in the 21st century and share these stories with a wider audience.
In return, the partnership gives Adidas cultural credibility and access to China’s artistic talent pool. Crucially, it will also enable Adidas to develop formative relationships with 18 to 22-year-olds through this new university program. The aim of this program is to take activities and resources into 10,000 schools around the country annually to promote Chinese sports culture and inspire youth with its famous “Impossible is Nothing” spirit.
Tapping Gen Z’s preference for healthy lifestyles and new experiences, Adidas plans to focus on emerging sports in China, such as frisbee, skateboarding and rock-climbing. Meanwhile, track-and-field events hosted by Adidas at urban landmarks in cities across China will give plenty of opportunity for community building and social media sharing.
As part of the CFLAC partnership, Chen Xiao, who starred in movies like Legend of Lu Zhun and The Romance of the Condor Heroes, was appointed as the ambassador of the campus program. Chen will be sharing Century Masters inspiration along with his passion for new sports and personal expression of lifestyle with his 24.08 million followers on Weibo. The star will also appear in the 2023 WUJI advertising campaign.
The initiatives have already generated considerable media attention across online and offline channels nationwide: from reports by state-owned media including Renmin Daily and Xinhua News Agency, to 91.3k views on GQ Lab’s WeChat account featuring Chen Xiao. WUJI’s latest advertising campaign appears on outdoor LED screens and billboards from Shanghai to Beijing and Chengdu.
Blending Chinese philosophy with contemporary sportswear
As part of Adidas’ China cultural deep-dive, local customers can expect to see more products with Chinese cultural elements. In the next few years, Siu aims for China-created products to account for a third of Adidas’ total sales in the local market, recently up by approximately 10 percent.
At its Greater China headquarters in Shanghai, the brand intends to utilize big data from its China Digital Center to gain timely insights into Chinese consumer behavior. Meanwhile, Adidas’ Creation Center Asia will provide a platform for young Chinese designers and artists to cooperate on new products and keep pace with rapidly changing trends.
WUJI is Adidas’ longest-running Chinese collection. First launched in collaboration with actor Jet Li in 2009, its concept about living with balance and without limitations is now sold around the world. WUJI’s 2023 drop will be marketed under Adidas’ Gen Z lifestyle sportswear label.
Titled “Fenglin Volcano: Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountains,” the collection is inspired by Sun Tzu’s military classic The Art of War. The storytelling gives plenty of traditional Chinese cultural content and lifestyle philosophy to unpack, with each character corresponding to a way of dealing with the world, leading to the ultimate self-realization “I am at ease.”
The evocative advertising sees actor Chen Xiao against a traditional backdrop of temples and forests. As he performs his characteristic martial arts moves to a soundtrack of Chinese drums and zither, The Art of War manuscript erupts in flames.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Adidas’ latest efforts mark the beginning of a fresh dialogue with Chinese consumers. After 25 years in the country, the brand is re-affirming its commitment to its former growth engine. By placing its focus firmly on China’s traditional culture and its future trends, Adidas hopes to align more closely with Gen Z values and lifestyle choices, and get back to profitable business in one of its most important markets.