We’ve all seen the carefully curated gym pictures going out on social media.

Yet, more than just a chance to flash the flesh, fitness and exercise have a whole new meaning in China. Fitness is the new status symbol of luxury and wealth.

Bling is “tuhao” (nouveau-riche and lacking in class), Gucci is “something my Mum wears”, and a YSL lipstick is fine for entry-level luxury. But if you want something that says “I have plenty of free time, I am as up-to-date as can be with international trends, and I am a class above” – you want a toned bod with a booty to boot.

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A fine physique takes much more money, know-how, and time to build.

Shapes and muscles speak of privilege, and are fast becoming a badge of social status itself.

A growing segment of China’s young, wealthy class is shifting attention from obvious brand purchase to fitness and bodybuilding.

According to a 2017 report by Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, more than 37,000 fitness clubs have bubbled up in China in the past few years.

Fitness premiumisation is going so strongly to a point that gyms charging annual memberships of 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) are doing better than normal gyms charging 3,000 yuan.

High-end gyms such as Crossfit Slash and SpaceCycle have been doubling the number of their outlets each year in Beijing and Shanghai, since the demand from the elite class is so high.

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Fitness is viewed as the new, real luxury.

Yet, beyond the association of fitness with a more Western, thus more expensive and contemporary lifestyle, there are particular cultural reasons behind this new luxury phenomenon.

Fitness, as a lifestyle pursuit, fits perfectly into China’s generic societal value: improving oneself level by level, and to be seen doing so. The wealthy, gym-going class is no exception.

Most affluent urban Chinese have still grown up under a culture that promotes upward social mobility through whatever means best available.

This has combined with social media and fitness apps, which give a clear avenue on the non-stop quest for social approval.

Fitness apps

Like most other pursuits, China’s fitness scene is fundamentally social. Besides the global trend of growing consciousness on health, social approval from peers is a strong motive for China’s “fitness class”.

A gym session must be shared. A flat stomach after exercising for a week must be posted. Every single yoga course must be broadcasted. Now with the live-streaming trend, watching a live gym session becomes a norm.

Showing “I am taking actions to better myself” makes Chinese feel they have more “mianzi” among friends.

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Across social media, Chinese millennials share practice records marked with app logos.

Chinese women are aware that their bodies are naturally built differently to the curvaceous Western booties that they see flaunted on Instagram

Enabling users to easily share records in WeChat moments is an indispensable feature of China’s successful fitness apps.

While posting your butt pose on social media is not uniquely Chinese, the fitness association with mobile preferences is evidenced by one of the most successful Chinese fitness businesses –≠“Keep” has gained more than 10,000,000 users in only 289 days.

Apart from Keep, Yingpai, and FitTime are among the most-used fitness apps in China.

Looking at their branding messages gives us a clear idea of the specific kind of fitness marketing that works in the Chinese market.

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Keep says: “Self-discipline is my freedom.” Yingpai says: “Meet your better self in the near future.” FitTime says: “Let FitTime change you into a dream boy/dream girl.”

Well-toned, ideally shaped bodies fill the app screens.

While fitness brands in the West tend to spread a message of “you are already totally good enough”, “work towards a better self” seems to work better in China, as well as reminding consumers that their body is one of the few aspects of life that they have freedom or control over.

The aspirational idea of self-betterment is key.

Chinese do fitness courses because they want their bodies to look closer to the beauty ideal, to be more attractive according to the societal standard.

In the West, the concept of self-betterment translates more or less into: “I take good care of myself. I am doing this for myself.”

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In China, self-betterment is mostly realised through the approval of others. It translates into: “I do this to ‘level up’, to be more worthy of admiration.”

Fitness brands – domestic v international

In some way, domestic brands have an advantage when marketing, as they can cut straight to the point.

Yet, international brands can still observe how premium athleisure brands market their products.

Maia Active openly explains how its clothes will make you look good, and how they are specially designed for Asian bodies.

Whether this is true or not isn’t the point – it’s the same as how cosmetic brands state that their creams and sera and elixirs are designed for Asian faces.

Fitness is viewed as the new, real luxury

The consumer doesn’t need to go to the factory to check if this is true – it just sounds nice to hear, “This has been made for us”.

Maia is something like the Chinese version of lululemon, founded by a former designer who returned to China from New York and spotted a way of localising an existing foreign brand.

Chinese women are aware that their bodies are naturally built differently to the curvaceous Western booties that they see flaunted on Instagram.

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Even if they don’t use a VPN to access the outside internet/social media, WeChat and Weibo are full of “fitness” accounts which copy/paste images of semi-nude Western fitness figures cavorting around the gym

Maia Active takes “Asian fitting” as its unique selling proposition, explaining that the outfits fit Chinese bodies and enhance their own form of attractiveness, strongly emphasising look over other points.

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One product promotion says: “This is the must-have that young girls can’t resist; a 3D shape – say bye to a flat butt.”

In contrast, Lululemon goes for function-over-aesthetic, explaining how it increases performance. This approach may be too bland for the Chinese market.

They might not be concerned with reaching an expert standard of yoga, but rather how their WeChat photos will look while they are doing it.

Lululemon has succeeded more with its offline events, continually teaming up with venues such as the affluent shopping strip Xintiandi in Shanghai, and brands such as The Peninsula Shanghai.

They might not be concerned with reaching an expert standard of yoga, but rather how their WeChat photos will look while they are doing it

This positions the image as premium, with its product part of an elite lifestyle, rather than the quality of the yoga performed there.

In China, fitness needs to be social, fashionable, and fun.

A successful example of an international brand doing it right is SpaceCycle, founded by the former director of Sony Music Taiwan – Matthew Allison.

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With an annual membership card costing 22,000 yuan, SpaceCycle positions itself in the high-end fitness bracket.

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By combing fitness, music, and techy charm, SpaceCycle has gained a solid clientele among China’s most fashion-forward urban habitants.

While the average annual gym membership card costs 3,000 yuan in China, SpaceCycle’s 22,000 yuan version seems to perform well.

After two test centres in Beijing and Shanghai, the brand plans to open another five to eight centres in Shanghai.

To China’s novelty-craving urbanites, SpaceCycle represents a glossy lifestyle. The offer is attractive enough: a cool place to see and be seen.

5 steps to speak to China’s growing fitness class

1. ‘A better me’ is key

A marketing message such as “You work out for you” makes perfect sense in the West, but it is not as attractive in China.

The Chinese market reacts better to a pragmatic “You work out because you want to look better” message.

To many, fitness is an indispensable step towards becoming a “dream boy/girl” (or nán shén/ nuǚ shén in Chinese).

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2. Make ‘exclusivity’ shareable on social media

Having an active lifestyle, wearing fitness clothing, and posting from a high-end gym is the new must-have sign of exclusivity.

But the exclusivity must be shared, since gaining social approval is important for Chinese.

Enabling consumers to seamlessly share their fitness lifestyle – with personalised touches – on social media will also enhance the relationship with brand.

3. Fashion is everything

Even in an industry that fundamentally relies on functionality, fashion matters a lot.

Since fitness is the new proof of status in China, practising fitness is in line with a premium lifestyle of being fashionable.

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4. Create a fun vibe

In a collective culture, Chinese consumers tie brands very strongly with their perceived self-identity. Not every new fitness centre needs to be decorated like a nightclub in China, but novelty and fun definitely will help.

While luxury consumers are more discerning and are moving away from flashy bling in fashion, Chinese people still like things big and bold in other areas of life.

Subtle and understated won’t broadcast fitness well on their social media.

5. Tailor to Chinese people. ‘This is for you. You are special’.

Yes, fitness trends taken from overseas and an international lifestyle are prompting the boom in China.

But Chinese people still see a boundary between “them” and “us”.

Things need to be specialised, tailored, and there must be an understanding about the very special and unique needs of a Chinese consumer – which is just the point that Maia hit on; you are very, very special, and these yoga leggings understand how special you are.

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