In Beijing, the fitness craze is becoming more difficult to ignore. Floor-to-ceiling glass lets locals peek in on the CrossFit classes in some of the city center’s gyms. At one of the busiest malls, activewear brands host pop-ups inviting passersby to exercise. Even in the digital world, the app Keep, which allows users to fit in small workouts throughout their workday, is spreading big time.
But there are still the more unusual moments. One of those occurred last week when hundreds of aspiring yogis filed out of the Forbidden City with mats in tow after a two-hour yoga session hosted by apparel brand Lululemon.
The fitness trend that has reared its sweaty head in Beijing, as well as at Lululemon’s “Unroll China” events in Shanghai and Chengdu, has the luxury industry worried about competition. A survey released last month showed that Chinese consumers planned to spend more on health and organic food in the coming year, as opposed to splurging on high-end goods. And Lululemon, which positions itself as a “premium technical apparel” brand, aims to become fully integrated into that spending budget on health and wellness. And they don’t have plans to go anywhere any time soon.
“We are here during the same wave as the ath-leisure movement, but that’s not what we want,” Lululemon’s Senior Vice President of Asia Pacific Ken Lee said. “We want to be relevant for the long-term.”
Those who don’t know Lululemon likely haven’t been to where the company originated, in Vancouver, where fitness is part of a lifestyle. Lululemon apparel is designed to bring people from their morning workout to work, to their afternoon hike, and then to a meal with friends before their evening swim. All of Lululemon’s products are geared toward fit and function, but in a range that encompasses both workout apparel and stylish leisure wear for every season.
Lee said China factors big into their global expansion plan. The brand opened its Beijing showroom in October following a gradual entry beginning around 2014 as China’s sportswear boom was just starting to take shape. It also opened a showroom in Shanghai, in addition to launching a Tmall store. It’s currently planning to debut brick-and-mortar stores to complement the full picture. However, Lee said a combination of quality and sustainability, not quantity, is the current focus.
Lululemon’s brand strategy very much relies on giving consumers the experience of what it means to have an active lifestyle, a sentiment that comes through in events hosted both inside and outside of its showrooms. The company partners with brand ambassadors, which include athletes, yogis, and community role models, to help bring fitness classes, marathons, and even festivals to consumers.
When they’re not hosting events, they’re answering questions. “The people that come to our China showrooms are very, very curious and probably ask more questions, like ‘What is it?’ ‘What’s the difference?’ and ‘Why should I invest in this?” Lee said. “Then a whole conversation happens. Curiosity level in China compared to Asia and North America is much stronger.”
Storytelling is also important to Lululemon’s brand image, and it accomplishes this primarily through its WeChat and Tmall channels using the global hashtag #thesweatlife. The Unroll China event registration was available on Tmall and video of it was live-streamed on WeChat. The brand also has plans to launch its own website in China.
“What I think is so cool about this market is O2O is so rich and vibrant and part of how people market, but it’s really authentic to Lululemon’s DNA,” said Amanda Casgar, the director of brand & community for Lululemon Asia Pacific. “We’ve always had this decentralized grassroots approach, so we do offline better than anyone else. What the channel mix in China lets us access is doing online to offline, to online, to offline so that we can actually accelerate brand awareness in building all those layers.”
And if Unroll China at the Forbidden City was any indication, Lululemon’s strategies seem to be working. In the case of 34-year-old Yanna Sun, doing yoga with the direction of MC Yogi at the Forbidden City’s Imperial Ancestral Temple was another layer in her decade of yoga experience, one that’s still evolving.
“I see a lot of girls wearing yoga pants who are just walking around on the street in California,” she said. “But it’s strange in China. Like today, there were a lot of girls wearing yoga pants on the street and they got a lot of looks.”
“But I think this will change.”