How Western sports brands can grab a foothold in China

Mailman's Andrew Collins highlights key insights learned from brands making successful inroads

China is the most attractive market in the world for Western sports brands. Yet it’s the most complex and difficult to crack, especially from a marketing standpoint. 

Understand the digital and cultural landscape
China is another animal. It’s the only market in the world that has its own digital ecosystem. Sports brands must learn the unique role that each digital platform plays. Weibo, China’s Twitter, is meant for bite-sized content to be shared among fans. WeChat is for long-form content to educate your core fans. While Youku, China’s YouTube, is a powerful tool to inspire and reach a wider audience. Knowledge of the platforms themselves though, is not enough. Understanding the culture is also key to gaining a foothold in the market.

Recognition of Chinese festivals and holidays demonstrates a brand’s commitment to the Chinese audience, and is a great point to launch online campaigns, e-commerce sales and other activations.  Meanwhile. staying in the loop of Weibo’s trending topics on a daily basis will ensure that a sports brand can effectively activate its largest fan base.

It’s who you know
Relationships with China’s key sports media can provide huge exposure for sports brands online, far higher than even the largest could achieve by themselves. Competition amongst the sports media and broadcasters has steadily increased over the last 12 months, with each trying to outbid each other and secure exclusive content. This represents a huge opportunity for sports brands to earn additional revenue from their online assets. NBA recently signed an exclusive digital partnership with Tencent for a record $500 million, a deal that has already seen NBA become the top sports brand on WeChat.

Support from these major players can turn an online campaign into a viral sensation. The US NFL (National Football League) worked in partnership with Weibo Sports to promote Super Bowl 49, with the campaign reaching more than 130 million people. Whereas reviews by strangers tend to carry weight in the western world on sites like Amazon or Yelp, China has a much different modus operandi. Whether it’s general distrust or qualified apprehension, an endorsement by a trusted KOL or celebrity is needed to buy into something. The absence of this in constructing a digital strategy is a sure-fire way to fail.

Push the boundaries
Gone are the days of sports brands just being able to "be online" in China. Chinese fans are the most in demand in the world and now have the luxury to follow multiple sports brands and talent online. These brands now have to do something different and push the boundaries in this saturated digital space. Wimbledon became the first tennis organisation to launch an HTML 5 game on WeChat to promote its summer tournament, and Bayern Munich set up three individual player accounts on this platform. Arsenal FC launched a digital membership program for core fans, while tennis star Novak Djokovic learnt Chinese characters to sign the camera lens with during the China tour events.

Play to your strengths
Sports brands must build their digital strategy around content that makes them different from their competitors. The UFC has successfully leveraged its roster of Chinese fighters, turning them into local legends to become the second most engaged US sport online. The NBA has over 70 players online with individual accounts, understanding that 40% of fans follow a team because of their star players, a defining trait of Chinese sports fans. Meanwhile the ATP and WTA, one of only a handful of sports organisations that have competitive events in China, have leveraged their China tour to get fans closer to the action and inspire a new generation. 

This works for any sports brand, big or small. Aston Villa, one of 10 Premier League clubs online, has played on its strong connection with the British Prime Minister and Royal Family on its social channels to develop a large following.

These insights provide a strong foundation for any Western brand seeking a foothold in China. However, the market is constantly evolving. Digital platforms that are popular one year have become a thing of the past the next. Brands have to remain agile and constantly moving forward in this evolving landscape to not only seek a foothold, but to find success.

This article first appeared on

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