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On a freezing Saturday in February, 200 yoga enthusiasts boarded a boat on the Huangpu River in Shanghai. The yoga-on-a-boat event was part of Lululemon's rollout in China – to the delight of local consumers, some of whom have long known the brand and bought it overseas or online. Participants, mostly women, went to the showroom afterward for a shopping spree. The Lululemon founder's disparaging remarks about women's bodies, and his subsequent stepping down, had little relevance to these consumers. They were happy to have another brand option.
Their enthusiasm speaks to a larger trend emerging slowly in China: women's sports. In China, personal empowerment -- rather than national pride and Olympic bids -- is starting to define people's involvement in sports. This is particularly true for women.
As Chinese women become more important in the economic and social fabric of society, they are trying running, yoga, tai chi, Zumba, dancing, swimming, archery, golf and team sports like ping-pong, tennis, badminton and volleyball. Interest is rising in equipment-heavy winter sports such as skiing. Savvy female shoppers are switching their attention from the latest Louis Vuitton and Gucci handbags to buying the most fashionable yoga pants and slip-proof headbands. They are paying for gear, classes, coaching and athletic events.
Sports brands are noticing the trend and ramping up efforts to target women with messages on independence, challenging yourself, self-expression, and most importantly, fun.
Nike, which sponsored the 2013 Shanghai International Marathon, displayed gigantic advertisements and projected videos of its campaign, "Let the Run Tell You Why," on the race route. The campaign focused on a handful of runners and their different reasons for running. One strand of the story concerned three college girls running together, shrugging off other women who think they are too out-of-the-box, and boys who see them as too strong and therefore unattractive. "When people see me run, they think I'm cool. But nobody said I'm pretty," one girl said.
The bottom line is, women are running, and they are not just running to lose weight. They are running to discover their true potential, to feel confident and to be with like-minded women. (I know because I'm one of them). In the marathon's swag bags, Nike added a bit of extra love for women runners: a pair of practical sport bras.
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Adidas is going the other way, toward women's fashion with an edge. With eye-popping colors and comfortable design made for everyday, the brand has transformed itself into fast-fashion causal wear through pop icons including Fang Bingbing and Angelababy.
Building upon its global campaign of "all in", Adidas launched "all in for #mygirls", portraying girls helping each other reach their true potentials. In other words, it's a modern sorority in the name of sports, beyond the boundaries of college campuses. Adidas even portrays a female Chinese tattoo artist who goes against society's traditions and pursues her art whole-heartedly.
Meanwhile, Lululemon Athletica's launch did not suffer from its lack of celebrity endorsers or well-funded campaigns. With the creative yoga event, Lululemon successfully announced its arrival to its core consumers: women who practice yoga for their own sake and invest in their health and appearance. Word of mouth combined with the phenomenon of quickly proliferating yoga studios and eager, in-the-know female consumers have made up for under-the-radar planning. Even before the boat event, Lululemon gathered hundreds of people to do yoga together at a historic post office building in Shanghai, using simple email sign-ups.
While brands ride the wave of female athletics, they will also propel and accelerate this trend. Chinese women's enthusiasm in sports will only grow as they redefine themselves as equally participating, value-generating and versatile individuals at the heart of an evolving society. The question is this: Which brand will own this wave, build on it and ride it home?