When it comes to Chinese sportswear brands, whether Chinese or foreigners, the first impression is always Li Ning.
Li Ning, founder of Li Ning company, stepped on his sneakers to fly to the main torch and ignite the flame as a torchbearer at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In recent years, Li Ning has launched a sub-brand called “China Li Ning”, which produces products in line with the popular concept of Chinese young people and invests in a large number of market advertisements.
By contrast, the Anta Sports does not shine even in the eyes of the average Chinese consumer. In the minds of many consumers, the feeling about Anta is that “this company should not be comparable to Li Ning.
However, the HKEx-listed company was shorted three times in 2019 and kept its share price. As GMT Consulting, another short seller, puts it:
It is either the world’s best-run sportswear company or a fraud.Chinese Sportswear, Fake or Fabulous?
The reason is that the little-known Chinese sportswear brand has reached an annual revenue of 30 billion yuan and a profit margin of nearly 16%, according to the financial report. That makes it a company with a market capitalization of about $18 billion, ranking fourth in global sportswear and getting closer to VF Corp.
In the eyes of both Chinese consumers and foreign investors, this achievement is at odds with the stereotype of Anta. In fact, it is because Anta has adopted a completely different business strategy from traditional clothing brands.
Many consumers do not know that they are buying Anta
Anta Sports has two parts, one is its main brand Anta, and the other is the “other brands” held by it.
Anta’s main brand, like other local sports brands in China, is chasing to incorporate popular elements loved by young people into sportswear. In 2019, for example, Anta launched joint titles with well-known cultural symbols such as Coca-Cola, TK Thompson, Marvel, NASA and Dragonball.
These fashionable styles adopt unique design and novel marketing methods, so that the price of Anta’s clothing and sneakers can reach the level of Adidas and Nike. However, these trendy products are not enough to support the whole story of Anta. Because his competitor Li Ning uses the same strategy, but Li Ning’s sales are only half that of Anta.
Anta’s real secret comes from people who don’t know they’re buying Anta.
As mentioned earlier, although Chinese consumers are less aware of Anta than Li Ning, in fact, if you are a Chinese sports enthusiast or a professional athlete, it is almost impossible for you to avoid Anta’s products.
If you play tennis, you may have Wilson tennis rackets, which now belong to Anta.
If you like mountain climbing and cross-country, then you must have Arc’teryx or Salomon stormsuit, which now belongs to Anta too.
If you like to exercise in winter, you may have a Descente down jacket, which is owned by Anta in China.
If you are a hiker, you may choose a pair of Sprandi sneakers, a brand that has been acquired by Anta.
If you own a pair of Suunto smartwatches, you are now an Anta user.
Even if you are not a sports enthusiast at all and just like to use comfortable sportswear as leisure clothes, you can’t avoid Anta.
In 2019, the Italian brand FILA became an unexpected hit in China. On the streets of first-tier cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, you can see people of different ages wearing clothes with FILA Logo printed on it. Even in China, what many people don’t know is that the Chinese franchise of FILA has been acquired for 10 years by Anta.
According to official data, as of March 2020, Anta Sports has 25 brands in China. These brands mainly include: Anta, Anta Kids, Fila, Descente, Kolon Sport, Kingkow, Athletics, Amer Sport (Arc’teryx, Wilson, Suunto, Salomon).
|Brand||Since||establish, acquire, or act as an exclusive agent||Introduction|
|Anta||1994||establishd||Anta’s main brand|
|Anta Kids||2008||establishd||Anta’s children’s clothing brand|
|Fila||2009||Exclusive franchise in China||A sportswear related to tennis that originated in Italy.|
|Fila Kids||2015||Exclusive franchise in China||Fila’s children’s clothing sub-brand|
|Fila Fusion||2018||Exclusive franchise in China||Fila’s sub-brand for twenty something.|
|Fila Athletics||2018||Exclusive franchise in China||Fila sub-brand for high-end consumers|
|DESCENTE||2016||Exclusive franchise in China||A winter sportswear brands originated in Japan|
|Sprandi||2015||acquired||A brand of hiking sneakers originating in the UK.|
|Kolon Sport||2017||Exclusive franchise in China||A brand of mountaineering equipment that originated in South Korea.|
|KingKow||2017||acquired||Children’s clothing brands that originated in China.|
|Amer Sport||2019||acquired||A sports brand that originated in Finland. Contains sub-brands: Atomic, Demarini, Louisville Slugge, Armada Skis, Wilson, Sports Tracker, Evoshield, Arc’teryx, Suunto, Mavic, Salomon|
Anta has acquired some of these brands over the past decade, while others have signed long-term exclusive franchise in Greater China region. While these deals are sensational in China’s sportswear industry, they are not important to most people, including Chinese consumers and overseas investors.
This means that for most of Anta’s target customers, they don’t even think of themselves as Anta’s consumers.
Why does Anta not focus on the development of its main brand like ordinary sportswear brands, but become a buyout maniac? This is related to the development of Anta.
Three big bets in Anta’s Entrepreneurship
Anta founder Ding Shizhong’s entrepreneurial path is full of gambling, but fortunately he is a winner almost every time.
Ding was born in Chen Dai Town, a town full of shoe industry, which is located in Jinjiang City, Fujian Province, China. The town covers an area of only 38.8 square kilometers. In the early 1980s, there were many workshops in the town that made shoes, in which Ding spent his childhood.
His first gamble was before he founded Anta.
In 1986, Ding Shizhong, who dropped out of school at the age of 17, borrowed 10,000 yuan from his father and bought 600 pairs of shoes from a relative’s shoe factory to Beijing to start a business. This year, at the beginning of China’s reform and opening up, Ding Shizhong made this decision because he was vaguely aware of how the market economy would change China.
Four years later, he returned home with savings from his start-up in Beijing and co-founded Anta, which started as a contract manufacturer of OEM, a multinational sneaker brand. But soon, they began to produce sneakers with their own brands and began to sell them across the country.
In 1996, Anta’s annual income reached 1 million yuan. In 1998, Anta’s income reached 10 million(At that time, it was about $1.2 million).
Soon, Ding Shizhong ushered in his second gamble in the process of starting a business.
In 1999, Ding decided to hire Kong Linghui as the spokesman of Anta Sports. Kong Linghui is one of the most valuable table tennis players in China in the last century. At that time, he has won numerous national championships, two Asian Games championships and one Olympic Games champion. And it is almost certain that he will win the championship again at the Sydney Olympic Games next year.
This means that Kong Linghui’s endorsement fee is not a small sum. According to the report, Kong Linghui’s endorsement fee was worth 800,000 yuan that year, but in order to make Kong Linghui as an Anta spokesman more known by consumers, Anta also needs to pay 3 million yuan for CCTV ads.
Although these figures are not large at present, they were a large number for Chinese enterprises at that time. As a reference, Anta’s annual profit that year is only 4 million yuan.
Fortunately, Ding won the bet again. In 2000, Kong Linghui made a splendor at the Sydney Olympic Games. That year, Anta’s sales exceeded 300 million.
The early development of Anta is not much successful, in 2005, the fledgling Chinese Basketball Association is looking for sports brand sponsorship, Anta became one of the candidates.
But when athletes wear Anta sneakers to play basketball, they complain that Anta’s shoes are uncomfortable, which is not as good as Nike, Adidas or even Li Ning. This made Ding Shizhong realize that what the modern shoe industry needs is no longer skilled workers, but technology and innovation.
In the same year, Anta invested 30 million yuan to set up a sports science lab, and now most CBA basketball players buy Anta sneakers spontaneously without sponsorship.
Ding Shizhong’s third gamble came from the acquisition of FILA in 2009 and the follow-up “brand matrix strategy”.
Run the company like an investor
Anta did not formulate its current brand strategy from the very beginning. In fact, the current brand matrix strategy comes from the outbreak of a systemic crisis.
On July 10, 2007, Anta was officially listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. At that time, the whole company, including Ding Shizhong, could not predict the upcoming world financial crisis a year from now, and the market contraction caused by the disappearance of the Chinese market due to the disappearance of the Olympic frenzy.
There is no need to say much about the financial crisis in 2008. Almost all the large enterprises in the world have been hit. Anta naturally experienced a fall in its share price, a weakening of financing capacity and a loss of overseas sales during the financial crisis.
The bigger problem is that Anta’s basic market was destroyed–the Chinese market began to usher in a brief recession in 2009, caused by the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Before 2008, Chinese people’s love for sports reached its peak because the Olympic Games received wide attention from the people. In order to meet the needs of the market, including Nike, Adidas, Li Ning, Anta and all sportswear brands in China expanded rapidly in the years before 2008.
With the end of the Beijing Olympic Games, Chinese consumers’ love of sportswear has gone down, as the frenzied opening of new stores in the sportswear industry has become deserted, orders have been cancelled and too many goods produced have been turned into permanent inventory.
Ding Shizhong said he suffered from “listing syndrome” for a period of time after Anta went public. Because listing Anta is one of his life goals, and this goal has been achieved in 2007, he has realized his life value.
In his memory, he played three rounds of golf a week and almost never worked on weekends at that time. The acquisition of FILA in 2009 was partly out of vanity, adding a “military medal” to his career.
As the crisis in China’s sportswear market deepens, Ding begins to realize that his entrepreneurial journey is not over, and Anta has a second goal-to overcome the market cycle.
Once this goal is determined, the next execution path becomes clear. Since the global cycle in the sportswear market is inconsistent, the way to overcome one cycle is to enter all markets.
But first, what Anta needs to do is change from a brand wholesale company to a brand retail company.
In the past, Anta adopted the more popular model of Chinese clothing enterprises, that is, Anta Group was only responsible for designing and producing clothing, and it was the “agents” who really handed over the goods to consumers.
The agents are not essentially part of Anta Group. They may be other companies or individuals who sell Anta products by obtaining a license from Anta.
The advantage of this model is that it can run the company in the “light asset mode”, but the disadvantage is that it can not get the market situation accurately and quickly. This means that you cannot predict the market cycle, let alone avoid it.
Since 2010, Ding has spent two years visiting more than 500 prefecture-level cities in China, learning more about consumer preferences and sales styles in China’s sinking market, and opening his own retail stores.
By 2013, Anta had become one of the earliest Chinese sportswear brands to recover. By June 2019, Anta had 10,200 stores in China, most of which were run by Anta itself rather than agents.
From here, Anta began its journey of “acquisition”, or “brand matrix model”.
One misunderstanding about Anta’s strategy is that Anta acquired overseas brands in order to gain the original market share of the brand. But in fact, Anta’s goal is to have multiple brands in almost all markets. This can build double stability in cash flow.
It is impossible for all markets to go into depression at the same time, and it is impossible for all brands to go into depression at the same time.
From the development of FILA, we can understand how this model works.
FILA is an Italian brand founded in 1911, but before Anta Sports acquired the right to operate the brand in China from Belle International in 2009, the brand had fallen into long-term losses worldwide. Moreover, the brand has only 0.3% market share in China’s sportswear market in 2009.
Just as Kong Linghui once made Anta popular with Chinese consumers, Anta found many famous celebrities on the FILA brand to become its spokesperson. For example, Chris Evans, the actor of “Captain America”, Ma Sichun, the best actress winner of the Golden Horse Award, Gao Yuanyuan, the one of the most popular actresses on Chinese social networks, Japanese film star Kimura Takuya and his daughter Kimura Mitsuki.
In the summer of 2019, you can see people wearing FILA on almost any street in a big city in China. The annual sales of FILA China owned by Anta have also far exceeded FILA’s overseas sales.
As consumers in each market periodically have a preference for brands and design styles, Anta’s strategy is to let different brands and different design styles detonate at different times.
Another potential brand worth mentioning in Anta’s brand matrix is Amer Sports, the parent company of Arc’teryx.
In August 2019, Anta completed the acquisition of Finnish sportswear brand Amer Sports. Reports of the acquisition in the Chinese media are widely described as “Anta’s acquisition of Arc’teryx”.
It is understandable that luxury winter sportswear and outdoor sportswear have become popular in China since 2017. The North Face and Canada Goose have triggered queues in first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while Archaeopteryx is clearly Anta’s ticket to join this trend.
At the end of 2019, less than a year after its acquisition, Anta sold Precor, a sub-brand of running machines owned by Amer Sports, at a low price. Analysts believe that Anta is breaking up assets owned by Amer Sports that cannot be integrated with Anta’s original industrial chain.
Coupled with the fact that Anta is phased in the operation of its brands, it will not invest too much energy in the recession of a brand, nor will it let go of the rise of a brand. This makes Anta look more like an investor than a clothing company.
Although most analysts believe that Fila will continue to be popular in 2020. But if you are careful enough, you will find that there is already a lot of fila hit shirt-related content on Chinese social networking sites. This is almost inevitable after a brand becomes too popular.
But Anta doesn’t seem to need to worry about it. It still has 24 brands to use.