Can Nike Popularize Running in China?

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Can a young woman named Salad inspire young Chinese to lace up and go running?

Nike hopes so, taking a grass-roots approach as it features the stories of ordinary people who choose to jog city streets at night as a way to change local perceptions that the sport is boring, lonely or even a punishment.

"Running is a very poor cousin of the other sports like basketball and [soccer]," said Gavin Lum, strategy director for digital agency AKQA in Shanghai. The target consumers "never see it as something they enjoy doing; it's something very rigorous and painful."

In China, most young people are only exposed to running at school, where they're forced take part in physical-education classes or athletic drills. Across much of Asia, running is not something most people in heavily polluted cities choose to do with their leisure time, least of all on streets jammed with cars, bikes, pedestrians, rickshaws and roadside shops. The joke is that when there's a person running in the city (and it's often a Westerner), people turn to see who's chasing him.

In contrast, a new web film for Nike Running in the U.S. tells consumers: "Never Stop Running."

From Punishment to Pastime
Faced with the challenge of getting Chinese to even put on running shoes, Nike launched its "Run For" campaign with AKQA creating a call-to-action video for Chinese social-media networks and video-sharing sites featuring runners who talk about why they run. The video then asks people to submit their own reasons.

"I run to make the hidden visible," one young woman says in the teaser video. "I run to get lost," says another.

Ordinary runners submitted their stories to Nike's microblog account on the Sina Weibo platform, and the AKQA team created a collection of professional videos based on the best entries.

"We wanted to make sure it wasn't necessarily Nike telling [consumers] why running is good, so the whole entry point with the communication is really leveraging stories of the few runners who are out there," said Johan Vakidis, exec creative director at AKQA in Shanghai.

Like the story of Salad -- a stressed-out 25-year-old office worker who lives in Shanghai. "The city is always noisy and busy. This adds even more pressure to my day," she says. "I guess for me, running is about shutting down the noise."

One key to Nike's marketing strategy is making running a social event for young, urban, image-conscious Chinese. That is, after they've been persuaded to turn off the computer, put down the phone and log off from social media.

"It doesn't come with spectators like basketball and football, where you can show your stuff and show how cool you are. There's no credibility earned through running," Mr. Lum said. "Running needs to give you social currency, so what can Nike do for you when you go running, so you can be recognized or worshiped by your friends?"

A New Kind of Happy Hour
So as part of the campaign, Nike hosted "Lunar Runs" in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan. The neon-lit nighttime events featured fitness instructors, live music and a few celebrities, to remind college students and young professionals that running is a fun activity that can be done at night, after classes or work. (The event's name also ties into Nike's Lunar Glide running shoe.)

"In China I think people generally understand the benefit of sports, but we need to give them an inspiration. How can we drive them to really go out of their house, to get off the couch and do something physical?" asked Jeanne Huang, Nike's communications director for Greater China.

Though Nike doesn't release sales figures by category, and running certainly remains a niche sport in the country, the campaign seems to be doing its job of getting more people interested in at least giving running a try. Nike engaged with more than 35,000 potential runners during its Lunar Runs and during a four-day Festival of Sports event in Shanghai.

"It's a very long road for us but ... we started feeling there's an interesting kind of positive perception about running right now in China. We just want to create this momentum and carry it forward," Ms. Huang said.

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