Runners high-five after one of China's growing number of races.
Runners high-five after one of China's growing number of races.

Can American Brands Tap the Chinese Outdoor Market?

Gear companies like Arc'teryx and Gore are desperately seeking ways to enter the approximately $15 billion market. They're making headway, but distributors say they still have a lot to learn.

Runners high-five after one of China's growing number of races.
Will Ford

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March was busy for Zhao Fan, the Chinese distributor for American running shoe company Altra. He had spent two weeks shepherding Lithuanian ultrarunner Gediminas Grinius around the country, along with American athletes Meredith Edwards and Jason Schlarb. UTMB, the prestigious ultra series, was hosting its first competition in China, in the Gaoligong Mountains, near the Myanmar border. Before the event, Grinius was giving talks around the country; afterward, Edwards and Schlarb would be attempting FKTs atop the Tibetan Plateau’s underexplored eastern edge, an area just beginning to develop adventure tourism. This was their third trip to China, and they gushed about the mountains they’d explored, but they were just as impressed by the growing enthusiasm for outdoor recreation in the country.

“I don’t want to sound greedy,” Schlarb told me, “but the China opportunity is really big.”

Exactly how big is an open question. “You ask five different people how big the outdoor market is now, you’ll get five different answers,” said Roger Zeng, who works for the China Outdoor Retail Association (CORA), a brand distributor that represents companies such as Patagonia and Backcountry Access. Sanfu, the Chinese equivalent to REI, estimates the current market to be around $15 billion, with most of the growth coming from running and skiing. But Zeng and other distributors are expecting Chinese hobbyists to pick up an even wider range of outdoor sports in the near future, especially as more of them continue traveling abroad. “Everyone is trying absolutely everything right now,” Zeng told me.

For outdoor brands, that should mean big opportunities in the coming years, but distributors say most foreign companies still have a long way to go. To capitalize on the incoming wave, they’ll need to do more than just translate an American branding campaign into Chinese and drop it into a Sanfu store. Over and over, distributors stressed the importance of tinkering with just about every aspect of a brand’s pricing, messaging, and advertising channels to fit the Chinese market.

At the Gaoligong race, I met up with Jack Lin, an industry vet by Chinese standards. In 2005, he opened a store selling outdoor gear in Shenzhen—a booming Chinese city only 40 years old. He sold imported products there and now distributes about 20 foreign brands in China, including names like Black Diamond and Vasque. Getting over the price hurdles is difficult. China heavily taxes imports, especially luxury products, and Lin has to sell foreign brands at higher costs than in the United States. Once, when visiting Seattle on vacation, Lin walked into a store selling outerwear by Arc’teryx—maker of one of the most expensive jackets in the West and famous in China—and had trouble concealing his laughter when he saw how much cheaper everything was. Chinese startups, he said, take advantage of those gaps. “In the beginning, domestic brands compete with cheap prices,” Lin told me, noting that Chinese brands often begin by copycatting established foreign designs. “When they get strong, they improve the product design, quality, and price points.”

Chinese consumers who still want foreign products have gotten more creative as well, buying directly from Amazon in America. They then ship the goods to China, circumventing the import and distribution system. Those who buy products online through Amazon are often attracted to brands Chinese consumers already know, like the North Face, Salomon, or Arc’teryx. That pushes aside knowledgeable distributors like Lin, who could otherwise educate consumers about brands that, though well-known in the United States, people in China haven’t heard of yet.

Zeng and Lin both told me that industry has been working with Amazon and the Chinese government to adjust tariff policies, but it’s still an uphill battle, and one they may not win. Lin sometimes wondered whether traditional distributors were becoming antiquated in the country. Its online shopping craze dwarfed similar trends in the United States. In China, cash and credit cards are rarely used anymore; they’ve been replaced by Alibaba and WeChat’s mobile pay schemes, which are similar to Apple Pay (except everyone actually uses it). These payment methods are now integrated into every aspect of Chinese life, especially online shopping. Marketing in China without fully understanding them is akin to attempting to promote products in America without knowing the inner workings of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Lin thought brands would be better off allowing their distributors to work on branding, ceding distribution to the biggest internet vendors in China, such as Taobao and Jingdong.

Brands also aren’t adapting their messaging as effectively as they could to Chinese audiences, many distributors told me. Foreign companies often wrongly assume they can message Chinese and U.S. consumers the same way, or they’re unwilling to adapt their messaging to fit trends specific to the country. “The Bears Ears campaign obviously means nothing here, and I can’t do anything with politics,” Zeng told me. Instead, many distributors see foreign brands as waiting for cultural norms and expectations to shift in their direction—for #vanlife, say, or other fads of the Western outdoor industry, to emerge in China. “Opening stores and selling stuff isn’t too complicated,” Bremen Schmeltz, Patagonia’s Asia Pacific rep, wrote me from Ventura. “However, doing it in a way that represents Patagonia’s mission of using business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis can be a bit harder. As the Chinese customer evolves and looks for quality and ethos in their purchases, Patagonia should be there as an option for them.”

To capitalize on the incoming wave, companies will need to do more than just translate an American branding campaign into Chinese and drop it into a Sanfu store.

Zeng, however, believes those values are more present in China than brand HQs realize—they just haven’t been exploited effectively. “The brands and the government, I think, are both actually still behind where the consumers are,” Zeng said, noting that using environmental messaging to target China’s younger generation, who are growing increasingly conscious about such values, can work. In an authoritarian country, Patagonia still can’t market itself as a brand supporting political resistance, but Zeng believes that with the right tweaks, a foreign brand’s message can work in China while still being consistent with its values from home. In addition to environmental awareness, Zeng hopes to frame Patagonia’s recycling message around frugality—an aspect of Chinese culture he thinks lies dormant beneath the new-wealth culture of glitz and glamour. He’s begun sending Patagonia’s sole in-country repair seamstress to do workshops around the country to promote the concept of reuse.”

For now, though, at the outset of the Chinese outdoor movement, promoting the apparel as a symbol of lifestyle probably makes the most sense. “People in China are starting to wear sporty winter jackets to walk their dogs,” Agnes Zhang, from Gore, told me. “It’s not just for hiking, like it used to be.”

Arc’teryx, one of the earliest and most successful outdoor brands to come to China, has become an emerging status symbol for tuhao­­—newly minted millionaires with little regard for budget. When Arc’teryx comes up in conversation with distributors in China, you frequently get laughs, eye rolls, or expressions of wonder, and sometimes all three. “You watch a tuhao go into Sanfu, and the first thing they ask is, ‘Where’s the Bird?’” a former reporter for the Chinese edition of Outside told me, employing the shorthand that the Chinese use to refer to the Arc’teryx logo. And while few brands have yet been able to achieve the same success, the Bird has proven it’s a lucrative path for those who can.

Getting the Chinese adjustments right, however, requires investing effort on the ground and a lot of experimentation, and some brands allow their distributors more freedom than others. Altra is one of them. Zhao Fan caught the trail-running bug while living in Utah for two years, where he met the company’s founders, and he was passionate about his project. Attuned to cultural ticks—“It’s easy to meet non-Mormons in Utah, actually,” Fan told me, “you just go running in the Wasatch on Sundays”—he is determined to deftly adapt messages to Chinese audiences. Fan has organized demos and invested much time explaining zero drop and Altra’s wide-toe design to Chinese runners, and now he’s bringing elite foreign Altra runners around China to promote the sport. He’s still adjusting the messaging but is willing to try almost anything. At Gaoligong, I usually found Fan on his cellphone, sharing content across every U.S. and Chinese social media platform he could: Twitter, Instagram, Strava, Weibo, WeChat, and Chinese running apps Joy Run, Iranshao, and Zuiku. (Like many Chinese people, Fan uses a VPN to access Twitter and Instagram, which are blocked in China.) At competitions, his team set up next to trails and counted the shoes running past, nursing side beers while doing so. Hanging out with Fan meant being consumed by shoe gossip. His aggressiveness was paying off: After just two years in the country, more than 10 percent of runners at one of China’s biggest trail races last year were wearing Altras, second to only Salomon’s share.

Making such headway, of course, means getting all the nuances right—the online shopping hurdles, the necessary message tweaks, generational targeting—and doing the extra legwork to make it happen. Even small mistakes could have real consequences. “Chinese like brighter colors,” Jack Lin told me at one point, talking about the importance of details, “but no green. A man with a green hat means his spouse has affairs with someone.”

Brands don’t always realize it, many people told me, but those tiny details matter, and ignoring them can mean lost opportunities. They seemed to be right: That weekend at Gaoligong, trail runners were covered in blinding neon outfits, but never anything resembling the color of a leaf.

Corrections: (06/02/2023) This article originally said that Jack Lin once sold product for Vans; in fact, it was Vasque. Outside regrets the error.