March was the first time a standalone, cross-category campaign for women on national TV was put out by Adidas, which used to do little patches of advertising in single categories like running. The German brand commonly runs global TV spots in each local market, exceptions being the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for example.
"For a single market in a non-event year, to run a completely localised, publicly televised campaign just for women, is a big step for the brand," Jens Meyer, vice president of marketing for sport performance at Adidas China, told Campaign Asia-Pacific in an exclusive interview.
"Sales of our men's products didn't decrease, and women's sales increased, so the share of business is now more balanced between men's and women's lines". Adidas saw a spike in early March when the campaign was launched, and saw sales sustaining through May.
Statistically, retail store counters report that they see more women walking in to shop. Anecdotally, tracking of online buzz show "fairly positive" comments written about the campaign, like "This is exactly how I feel", "This encourages me to do sport", "Sports doesn't have to be hard", "This isn't like the brand that I had in mind before".
But financially, the sales relationship is the best proof of progress of the women's campaign.
As a brand, or even as a sporting goods category beyond Adidas, sports never had a real or proper connection to women, said Meyer. "When we entered China 15 years ago, we marketed the brand predominantly around football and basketball. Playing off a player's physical attributes is a way to get men inspired by Kobe Bryant and buy a tee-shirt or whatever, but for women, image transfer [as an advertising technique] is obviously much harder," he said.
The problem was identified around mid-2011, which prompted the brand to conduct research in November that year. Adidas interviewed 126 females between the ages of 15-28 in six cities: Beijing (T1), Guangzhou (T1), Wuhan (T2), Guiyang (T3), Jinzhou (T4), and Lishui (T4).
One key finding from focus groups, ethnography activities and digital diaries was how these females associate words like “healthy, beautiful, elegant, confident and energetic” with girls who participate in sports.
Compare this with terms describing physical attributes such as "strong, lean and toned" in the West. Brian Swords, managing director at TBWA Shanghai (Adidas' creative agency) pointed out sports is much more developed in the West, evident in the existence of women-only gyms where they can sweat it out in their comfort zones without the likes of Mr Pumping-Iron beside.
"When it comes to China, the more hardcore the imagery is, the more women are put off by it. An internal mood video in the early stages showing foreign women in exotic sports was rejected by our pre-market testing group," he said.
In China, sports is done with more of a social mindset. Women do not view fitness as working out; they see it as a chance to socialise, according to Adidas' research. One of the obstacles to sports was girls are usually only willing to do so if friends participate as well. The core concept of sisterhood for the China-esque women's campaign was then defined, slowly but surely.
"Once we have some qualitative results—enough to hypothesize but not sufficient to quantify—we overlaid the results with our media agency's (Carat) consumer databases to cross-check and determine if the target audience is big enough from a business perspective to market to", Meyer said.
In March 2012, the decision to localise the global women's campaign was set. The global TVC, with sports like pool diving and snow riding, showed a lot of attitude and swagger but did not register much interest from Chinese women. "I look at it, it's cool, so what?' the girls in the focus groups remarked.
Meyer revealed even though China is a powerful enough market to "go off-global": as in do things that are for China specifically without copying the global concept wholesale, the brand did not want to have a China positoning that fights with the global one.
Swords went into details about how the positioning for China was hammered out. "We looked at 30 different 'sports tribes' in China, all the way from a 'princess boxing club' to all-female mountain bikers, to explore the formation of and motivation behind those clubs.
"The trick was to differentiate what was edgy for the sake of being edgy and what were truly aspirational types of sports that will appeal locally," Swords said. Adidas finally picked a blend of running, dance, and parkour to be featured in its women's campaign over less energetic "softie sports" like yoga.
Parkour was seen to be aspirational and, interestingly, not rebellious in the eyes of Chinese women. Running was accepted en-masse because it is a low-barrier sport—an easy pick. Dancing was a more feminine but popular type of sport that was a clever association with Hebe Tien, the brand ambassador for the campaign.
Tien was picked due to her independent persona which fits with what the brand was trying to achieve. "Celebrities can be mis-used or over-used in China, so the idea of using her as a dancer with real people beside her lessened the chance of her dominating the whole campaign," he said.
Notably, for International Women's Day last year, Nike's own women's campaign called 'Be Amazing' starred Ella Chen, also from the same Taiwanese girlband, S.H.E., that Hebe was from.
It showed closeup shots of Chen sweating while she is contemplating to a monologue: "You use your hair to cover your face; you wear loose-fiting clothes to hide your curves... You rather live your life through the internet, you feel you can't run 800m even if you spent your whole life trying... You always think you aren't as good as others".
Industry sources have described the Nike campaign as "too aggressive and napoleonistic" with a overly competitive-based brand image.
And all that sweat did not help. "When we tested past adverts done by other sports brands, whenever there are women shown sweating with groaning faces, we get feedback: I can do that in order to look good, but I don't want anybody to see it," Meyer elaborated. "They tell us: I want to see a beautiful woman; if she's in sports clothing, I know that she has done sports. Show me the results, don't show me the torturous journey".
"Look at the communications we do in America: women with six-packs lifting weights, that's very performance-oriented. Here in China, females are alienated with ads that are too masculine-leaning," Meyer added.
In China apparently, sports is not for the sake of sports, but for the sake of looking good. That means being well-shaped so you can dress better. "Sports is not about the 90 minutes in the gym, but the results of it, the means to an end, the purpose rather than the destination. Stress relief and shaping yourself (not just physically) are the two main aspects," Meyer said.
These competing campaigns are against a backdrop of a generally-low level of sports participation in China. "You may see a lot of badminton being played, for example. But when you dig deeper, it may be an activity people do in the backyard with two old shuttlecocks, so this is not sports in the real sense," Meyer said.
However, badminton is not considered an aspirational sport. Neither is volleyball, which is played as part of curriculum in school, but "we know they don't like it".
A low sports-participation rate is a natural development of an emerging country where people have different priorities on their minds: building their lives financially then educationally. Well-being from a work-life balance comes after. "It's the same for Germany after the World War, the country didn't focus on looks in the beginning until it came to wealth. It's the same curve for China," Meyer said.
For modern Chinese women, life is less formulaic than it used to be, and is now an awakening of what they think they can do and achieve. "This princess boxing club, you wouldn't see many similar ones three years ago. Though external beauty is still hugely dominant as the factor behind feminine confidence, we are seeing sports play a bigger role in assertiveness and inner beauty, in terms of how women run their lives", Swords said.