Lululemon has always been a brand with a strong culture of experiential retail, but in China, the Canadian fitness apparel company strikes a particular chord with a fanbase hungry for community. This was especially apparent at Unroll China 2017, the brand’s mass yoga event in Beijing last Sunday, that attracted a 5,000-plus-strong crowd of selfie-snapping, live-streaming, young yoga enthusiasts.
With yoga legend Baron Baptiste the headline draw, the Beijing date was the largest and final event of Lululemon’s Unroll China 2017 series. Over the past six weeks, more than 8,000 fans have practiced yoga with Lululemon in iconic locations across Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Chengdu. The initiative coincided with the Chinese launch of “This is Yoga,” Lululemon’s first global branding campaign.
Initially released in May, the campaign film has already acquired about 240 million impressions and 26 million video views. The film features Lululemon’s Chinese ambassador, Beijing-based drummer Atom of punk band Hedgehog, along with six other inspirational people around the world who are living a “life of purpose.”
The campaign launch is a big step for the brand in reaching new potential markets, but Lululemon had already been laying the groundwork for growth in China. Since Unroll China’s inception in August last year, the brand has been aggressively expanding its retail footprint. The first Beijing store opened in December, and two additional spaces followed in Shanghai in the spring, giving Lululemon a total of five brick and mortar locations in China.
In addition to selling the brand’s clothing, Lululemon’s stores host wellness and fitness classes and workshops. Online, the company does e-commerce on Tmall and has a budding social media presence on WeChat.
In other words, Lululemon has big plans for China. In five years, the company plans to double its global business and China is integral to this strategy. According to Amanda Casgar, director of Brand & Community for Lululemon Asia Pacific, China’s digitally-driven climate for experiential luxury and online to offline (O2O) marketing is paving an ideal pathway for growth.
“We are going to create an online to offline expression of a brand unlike any retailer has,” Casgar said, adding that she’s seen major “interest and excitement” for Lululemon’s signature motto for spreading the active lifestyle, “the sweat life.”
The company’s vision coincides with a booming health and wellness trend among China’s growing middle class that holds huge potential significance for the luxury retail landscape. Burberry’s store in Hong Kong’s Pacific Place mall made headlines late last month when it closed its doors, only to be replaced by local yoga studio and sportswear brand Pure Yoga. In Beijing, innovative gyms with high membership fees—and Lululemon itself—are opening in shopping malls opposite big-name luxury brands, drawing in wealthy consumers looking to mix shopping with a group fitness class.
But while it’s a growing phenomenon for affluent Chinese consumers to achieve status from looking and being fit, going to the gym also offers an outlet for social experiences and the connections those consumers crave.
At Unroll China, attendants brought along loved ones—mothers, daughters, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends—both physically and virtually through posting photos and video on social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat. Even China’s culture of strong social connections between online celebrities and their fans was apparent at the event, when hoards of cheering fans flocked around one of the instructors for the evening, Tiffany Hua, a yoga and meditation live-streamer with more than 80,000 followers on popular live-streaming platform Inke.
“One thing that is really cool about China is some people would argue that we’re late to the market, but I would argue that we’re right on time because of where the O2O mix is and our ability to actually give a product to people in cities in really fun and different ways than just opening stores,” Casgar said.
“I truly believe we are in a space where we can create for our guests in interesting and innovative ways in terms of product, but also in community, and how they’re able to access both product and community.”
The brand, which faced challenges initially getting its feet off the ground in China, has already seen promising results after leveraging this strategy. Lululemon CEO Laurent Potdevin announced earlier this month that its China stores are currently exceeding all store metrics and are set to bring in US$1,600 in annual sales per square foot.
Further brick and mortar expansion is in the works. The brand is planning to open another location in Beijing this fall, a store in Chengdu, and is looking to expand to other areas of China.
Despite the surging demand for athleisure and sportswear from wealthy consumers in China, Lululemon’s activewear, designed to be worn not just for working out at the gym, but as part of a daily lifestyle, is still a fairly novel and “strange” concept to parts of the market. However, Casgar said she believes that the product’s reputation for quality and craftsmanship will translate to China’s luxury shoppers.
“What happens is people keep grabbing for Lululemon in their closet because they feel so good in the product,” Casgar said. “I guarantee that will happen in China once the brave souls realize that they can wear leggings to brunch just like they can wear Prada heels and a fabulous bag.”