Image credit:
Messe München GmbH
Image credit:
Messe München GmbH
ISPO Shanghai/07/07/2023

Don't conquer, grow with it: How brands benefit from the new sport lifestyle in China

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ISPO Shanghai 2023 is in the books! From a Western perspective, the trade show was nothing less than an exciting eye-opener. Because the understanding of sport in China has changed after the Covid years - with surprising twists, as Christoph Beaufils reports from Shanghai.

Right up front: International brands in particular should now have a look at the country in Asia, because there is a holistic understanding of sport and exercise that encompasses health, nutrition and lifestyle. It touches all segments and parts of the population. Copy + paste from the West will not work here. As a brand as well as a retailer, you have to become part of the movement and participate in it. Challenging at first glance, a huge opportunity at second glance. Because meets openness: It is the playful, creative approach and the sheer endless curiosity of the Chinese population that give trends known in the West their own, very exciting character and thus reinvent them for themselves. You don't conquer the Chinese market. You grow with it!

China's Interpretations of Sport

China, for example, cultivates road cycling in an individual and very aesthetic way. People are forming around the theme of sustainability and combining enjoyment with the urge to experience nature. A young, health-conscious and lifestyle-oriented generation is claiming Urban Outdoor and its lifestyle and creating a new understanding of fashion in the process. It's all very inspiring and exciting.

What exactly does this mean? Here's an attempt to compactly categorize the most exciting phenomena and takeaways:

China. Land of Communities

Group outings and organized activities are part of the Chinese DNA. Combine this with sports, a high number of apps, and huge affinity for social media, and it opens up incredible potential for brands to create tight-knit communities for every genre and segment. This may not be anything new from an international perspective in general, but it has a very different scale in China. And the good news is: there is little fear of contact or scepticism. Niche sports in particular find their place and followership in this way. The only thing is not to be boring.

Social media also determines everyday life in sports in China
Image credit:
Messe München GmbH

Sport is health. Health is lifestyle

It may be due to the tough Covid-19 years, but the Chinese population cares about their well-being. Sports are no longer equated with physical exercise alone. Mental health is being addressed, especially among a younger generation, and nutrition is also a big issue. China defines quality of life through a sporting lifestyle, but this is not only achieved through discipline - which used to be more typical of China. It's also about having a lot of fun in the process.

No Coffee. No Camping. No Feel Good.

The speciality coffee scene in China is booming and, for the Chinese, is a kind of logical component of an outdoor-driven lifestyle. This applies to both urban outdoor and nature outdoor. But it's not about coffee per se, it's about linking pleasure and enjoying quality time. People are cultivating what is good for the Chinese soul. That's just as true of the craft beer scene, which snuggles up closely to the outdoor scene. You can see the desire for quality time in the outdoor context in many corners: Rarely, for example, have you seen such high-quality designed, compact BBQ grills, fashionable interior accessories for tents or cooler boxes. Even storage elements are given stylish wood finishes. It's not about extreme outdoor experiences or consciously limiting yourself - it's about feeling good.

Quality Time camping
Image credit:
Messe München GmbH

Urban lifestyle vs. new generation

As is well known, China is at the forefront of urbanization and megacities. The number and size of major cities are enormous. But the lifestyle and the micro-scenes that are currently developing from sports and urban outdoor are as diverse as they are exciting. This includes cycling, skating, fashion, dancing, running, fitness, yoga ... you name it. A new, very fashion- and health-conscious generation is finding its scene(s) and, this is relatively new for China, identifies strongly with them. This gives rise to many fashionable and very aesthetic genres. Any brand that can convey and define a sporty, urban lifestyle will meet with a greater response in China in the future.

Ambassadors. Brand awareness thanks to KOLs and KOCs

Considering that sports and their equipment are becoming increasingly complex, technical, and individualized, while at the same time China has just discovered or is reinventing many sports for itself, it quickly becomes clear that a great deal of inspiration and knowledge transfer must be provided here. This task is specifically taken on by so-called Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) and Key Opinion Customers (KOC), who were integral parts of the concept of ISPO Shanghai. KOLs and KOCs help to ensure that sports are understood, learned and attractive. They arouse interest and spread the necessary know-how in a playful and entertaining way. Particularly for brands that are still unknown in China, this is the key to building brand awareness. It's not about "flat buying recommendations," but about high-quality content, tangible storytelling, and inspiring testimonials. This works particularly well at happenings such as trade shows and festivals, which are both occasions and platforms for stories. The curiosity of the population is huge, the gratitude for inspiring content is high, and the learning curves of the followers are steep. KOLs and KOCs enable broad access to sports and the outdoors and thus make an enormously important contribution to the entire sports world.

Intrinsic motivation for sustainability

There may be some scepticism in the West when China and sustainability are mentioned in the same breath. But attitudes toward environmental protection are changing rapidly. Chinese brands do not feel driven by consumers, but want to prove their expertise. Because many brands are still relatively young by international standards, they see sustainability as a potential source of differentiation. And this falls on the ears of consumers, who want more than ever to discover and preserve nature. The discussion about how to achieve sustainability goals is being conducted with a lot of fun and interest. This should not be seen as naïve: Since China produces a lot for the international market, a lot of know-how is already available.

Not there yet. No problem.

The sheer endless curiosity and openness of the Chinese brings out another exciting phenomenon: Even if you can hardly practice a sport in China, the interest in it is there. A concrete example: mountain biking. There are neither real bike parks nor trails designed for potent full-suspension MTBs. Yet, brands define themselves by this lifestyle - with success. The same goes for sports like ski touring. In this country, this still serves as a brand-building story and is more likely to generate sales and curiosity in the accessories sector such as goggles, helmets or jerseys. Still...

Winter sports. All year round.

The fact that many ski brands are exhibiting at ISPO Shanghai, which takes place in the middle of mid-summer, is due to something that has not yet caught on in the West: "Artificial Slopes". China is not a classic winter sports country, snow conditions are often poor, and many ski resorts are barely accessible to the average person. But China is finding its own way again - just as the West did with skate, wakeboard or wave parks. We're not talking about energy-intensive ski halls with artificial snow - those exist, too - but rather slopes made of plastic mats. These are usually found in ski and snowboard amusement parks and exist both indoors and outdoors in all sizes. An interesting alternative for the winter sports industry.

ISPO in Shanghai is a success story
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Messe München GmbH
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