Since the outbreak of COVID-19, being active has become a trending lifestyle in China. Outdoor activities such as camping and hiking have boomed in popularity as observed by Monzaying Consulting, and such keywords are all over social media: “camping” has over three million hits on Xiaohongshu. The popularity of cycling has even caused traffic jams in major cities such as Beijing. Not to mention the lure of Liu Genghong, a former singer-turned-workout coach, who became one of the most popular livestream hosts and gained more than 64 million followers within one month.
According to the National Exercise and Health Trends Report jointly released by the mobile fitness app Keep and the CBNData, Chinese people’s concern for health has risen significantly due to the pandemic, with nearly 80 percent of interviewees saying that they are willing to exercise more in the future. And now, with Beijing publishing a plan in March to upgrade the national fitness public service system, this trend has been elevated to the level of state policy.
“Health and wellness have been high on people’s priorities since the pandemic happened, and I don’t see it slowing down,” marketer Mary Cing confirms. And, as this awareness grows, the global activewear market is expected to expand to €395 billion by 2025, says McKinsey. Despite the opportunity, the competition is fierce for global sportswear and luxury entering China — especially against homegrown players with a better understanding of local consumers. In the recently published 2022 China New Gym Industry Research Report, local emerging names such as Sylphlike Loli and Particle Fever are taking on international players such as Lululemon and Fila.
With more Asian-suitable sizes, innovative fabrics, and diverse marketing strategies, one Chinese name is standing out: Maia Active. After opening its first Hangzhou store in shopping center IN77 on June 25, it plans to open a total of 50 stores by the end of 2022. Here Jing Daily looks at why this domestic disruptor is ahead of the pack.
The rise of Maia Active
Founded in 2016 by Parsons’ alumni Lisa Ou, who previously worked for J Crew and Badgley Mischka, Maia Active focuses on creating products that fit Asian women’s bodies. As the brand describes, this means having a “lower waistline, smaller waist-hip difference, and smaller thighs and calves difference.” Take the top seller legging “yaojing” as an example: the sandwich waist (developed specifically for Asian women), uses a unique three-layer compression structure that allows for more comfortability yet is still flattering on every figure.
And this attention to detail gains fans. As a customer of Maia Active, Flo Xu, founder of Project Flow and sustainable fashion consultant, tells Jing Daily that these products do actually offer a better fit for Asian women: “I was attracted to this feature at first and it’s also the reason why I started to try, and buy, their products.”
By accurately targeting consumers like Xu, the activewear maker has shown its viability to investors too. From 2017 to 2021, it successfully raised financing from several backers, including Sequoia Capital and Belle International, allowing it to further improve product design, expand offline channels, and optimize operations. In 2021, brand sales exceeded the 300 million mark, with an average annual growth rate of 166 percent.
Winning DTC and offline strategies
Direct-to-consumer is key to Maia Active’s success. Not only has this strategy reduced middleman costs so the brand can offer better prices, but it has also given it greater control over research and marketing. Cing explains: “The DTC strategy allows for constant feedback from customers. It made me feel at ease, like they are listening to my product needs.” Online sales allow for the collection of customer information, which Maia Active then uses to find the right fit and color for Asian bodies and skin tones as well as to develop innovative fabrics according to pain points, consumer needs, and specific climates.
The Shanghai-based sportswear label also relies on brick and mortar, with 20 directly-managed shops in nine cities. The new Hangzhou door, located in one of the prosperous commercial and leisure areas, plays to the consistent location selection strategy. By aiming at groups who want a high-quality lifestyle, it undertakes the function of improving the stickiness of customers and operating offline community events. Reportedly, on average, Maia Active’s offline store sales are 1.5 times higher than online channels, which is nearly 5 times higher than the industry average.
Marketing and community
With the core concept of growing a community in the form of sisterhood — instead of a traditional coach-trainer relationship — the brand has cultivated a strong following of nearly 105,000 users on Xiaohongshu, 83,000 on Weibo, and 963,000 on Taobao. In addition to hosting frisbee and other sports events, Cing highlights how the brand invites consumers to be models in its ads; this “increases my familiarity as a consumer as I am not watching supermodels selling the product to average women,” she says.
Given its quick rise, DTC strategy, and offline community, Maia Active is often described as the Chinese version of Lululemon. But as a customer of both lines, Xu notes that Maia Active isn’t as consistent at hosting activations as the Canadian athletic giant. “From the consumer’s perspective, the community events run by Maia Active are more like marketing initiatives, not systemic like Lululemon. For [Lululemon] it’s more based on brand culture and philosophy,” Xu adds.
China always has room for thoughtful brands offering improved products and services, especially as waves of Guochao make shoppers excited to see local names take on international ones. But to win the race for local consumers, Maia Active could take a page from Lululemon’s playbook and be more proactive in engaging its fans.