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    Paris 2024: Why Chinese Brands Are Betting on Sports Over Stars

    Chinese brands are increasingly turning to athletes for endorsements before the Olympics, seeking to avoid the pitfalls associated with celebrity scandals and capitalize on the positive image of sports figures.

    When Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre announced Olympic swimming champion Wang Shun as their new brand ambassador, longtime fan Zhang Chen felt a surge of pride — and a twinge of regret.

    Though the 27-year-old from Beijing has supported Wang for years, buying everything bearing his name from milk tea to clothing lines, luxury watches are far beyond her reach on a teacher’s salary.

    “I tend to buy products that he endorses because it feels like the brands really understand the qualities I admire in the athletes they partner with,” Zhang told Sixth Tone.

    Zhang admires the world champion swimmer’s athletic spirit and dedication — qualities she tries to impart to her students. “Athletes like Wang are more relatable role models than celebrities because they are known for their sportsmanship and rarely get negative press,” she said.

    Zhang’s choices reflect a broader trend among Chinese consumers, as brands increasingly leverage the influence of athletes to boost visibility and expand market share.

    In recent months, more than a dozen new endorsement deals have been inked between brands and Chinese athletes, signaling a growing strategy to align with top sports figures ahead of the Paris Olympic Games in July.

    Among these, China’s dairy giant Yili Group announced its “dream team” for the Paris Olympics in April, featuring diver Quan Hongchan and sprint star Su Bingtian, as part of their efforts to invest in high-performance athletes and reinforce the brand’s values.

    And Chinese track and field star Wu Yanni has become the ambassador for the Xiaoma Bestune, a mini electric car brand under China FAW, which hopes to attract young female consumers.

    While commercial opportunities for athletes in China are still moderated by strict state controls, emerging sports like breakdancing and skateboarding now offer new avenues for brands to engage with younger demographics.

    In recent years, brand collaborations with athletes, seen as lower-risk compared to entertainment celebrities, are increasingly favored by brands, especially luxury ones, across the country. This trend has intensified after several high-profile scandals involving celebrities led to significant backlash for the brands involved.

    For instance, Prada cut ties with actor Zheng Shuang in 2021 following rumors that she pursued surrogacy abroad. In 2022, Prada also ended its relationship with actor Li Yifeng after he was arrested on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes.

    Similarly, Louis Vuitton dropped pop idol Kris Wu in 2021 over his rape conviction, while Bulgari dropped actor ambassador Deng Lun in 2022 for tax evasion.

    For brands, the timing of endorsement collaborations is crucial. Major deals are strategically scheduled around significant events, like the Olympics, and announced in advance to build hype, Pablo Mauron, partner and managing director for China at Digital Luxury Group, told Sixth Tone.

    For example, when skier Eileen Gu dominated the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, she became not only the youngest gold medalist in freestyle skiing history but a marketer’s dream in China.

    With her striking looks and multicultural background, Gu has since become the face of more than 30 brands, ranging from top-tier international luxury names like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. to local consumer products like the coffee chain Luckin.

    Last year, she ranked second on Forbes’ list of “The World’s Highest-Paid Female Athletes 2023,” with total earnings of $22.1 million, the overwhelming majority of which came from off-field brand endorsements.

    Similarly, before this year’s Formula One race in Shanghai, brands such as Lululemon, Hennessy, and Dior launched a series of promotions with Chinese racing driver Zhou Guanyu.

    The rise in marketing and endorsement opportunities has further sparked discussion about the commercial viability of athletes in China, where the sports industry remains largely state-sponsored.

    “Strict management of athletes within this system limits the commercialization of Olympic champions,” said Chen Diandian, founding partner of ECO Sports, a platform offering media, consultancy, and other sports-related services.

    In China’s sports system, active athletes must obtain approval from the relevant management center to participate in commercial advertising and social activities. Also, their personal business contracts must avoid conflicts with their teams’ sponsorships.

    “This is why, in advertisements, the image of athletes is mostly presented as part of the national team, especially during an Olympic year,” explained Chen.

    According to Mauron, the athletes’ professional achievements and how well the sport aligns with the brand’s image are top considerations when choosing ambassadors.

    “Watch brands, for instance, prefer to partner with Chinese swimmers because both emphasize precision and speed,” he said. “Fashion powerhouses like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, on the other hand, favor sports with fashion appeal, such as tennis.”

    Amid the ongoing deals is a noticeable shift in expanding the criteria to select relevant sports. Brands are moving beyond traditional Chinese strengths, such as diving, table tennis, and badminton, to a broader range of sports, even niche ones.

    “Cooperating with athletes from breakdancing, skateboarding, BMX freestyle, and climbing — four new sports set to debut at this year’s Olympic Games — has become an increasingly popular strategy for brands,” said Chen, adding that this approach is seen as a more cost-effective way to generate buzz and increase exposure.

    “The buzz on social media around such sports has increased following the qualifying competitions held in Shanghai last month. Brands are looking at these games for long-term growth among young consumer groups.”

    The benefits are mutual, however. Local athletes help brands resonate with local audiences, while brands introduce sports to their community in return, according to Mauron. “The collaboration with snowboarder Su Yiming after the Winter Olympics underscored this trend,” he said.

    Moreover, brands are no longer solely focused on champions, says Mauron, adding that the value of sports stars is no longer limited to their performance but also includes their persona.

    “That’s why brands favor Eileen Gu for her appeal to cross-cultural markets,” he explained. “They now hope to create the right assets through the right narratives to enhance brand value and recognition through these partnerships in the long run, rather than focusing solely on short-term exposure.”

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Swimmer Wang Shun, Tennis star Zheng Qinwen, and Chinese racing driver Zhou Guanyu (from left to right). From Weibo)