Ski brand Faction Skis is carving out a niche among a burgeoning cohort of novice winter sports lovers in China who want to own upmarket gear.
The Swiss company has built a team in China, leveraged digital tools on Alibaba Group’s online marketplace Tmall and built communities among novice skiers with celebrity ambassadors, including Olympic gold medalist Eileen Gu.
Faction Skis is a case study of why international brands must commit to China to succeed in the world’s second-largest and highly competitive retail market. Though it is still an emerging ski brand, its tactics have turned it into one of China’s fastest-growing ski brands in the winter sports market.
“We decided we either had to go full-time into China and commit, or not bother,” said Alex Hoye, CEO and Co-Founder of Faction Skis, during an interview with Alizila.
To grab market share, the ski brand also needed to adopt an omnichannel approach to retail in China where many consumers are digitally native and focus on premium ski equipment and winter gear.
The company is enjoying a strong tailwind created by China’s ski boom, with over 13 million people hitting China’s slopes every year, according to the 2022 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism by Geneva-based ski business expert Laurent Vanat.
All-In On China
Founded in 2006 in the Swiss Alpine village of Verbier, Faction Skis set its sights on the Chinese market in 2015, when it entered the country through a partnership with local retail distributors. Four years later, it formed a dedicated team based in Beijing.
“China’s growth is moving the global ski market,” said the Faction Skis co-founder, who grew up skiing in the Rocky Mountains and left his job in business to start his skiing company.
Faction Skis’ commitment to China is anchored in its faith in the country’s expanding winter sports market, spurred on by the Winter Olympics last year.
China recorded the world’s second-highest number of skier visits during the 2021/2022 snow season, per the 2022 report from Vanat. People in China’s first, second and third-tier cities alike reported an interest in skiing, according to market insights from Tmall, and many are trying their hand at the sport.
The company found its niche in the free skiing market, a skiing style that involves aerial stunts in terrain parks and going beyond the groomed trails of a ski area, which gained prominence in China after Gu’s Olympic debut during the 2022 Winter Olympics .
In China, sales of Faction Skis products grew 450% year-over-year in the seven days after Gu won her first gold medal in Beijing. Visits to its Tmall flagship store increased 945% on the day compared to one week earlier.
Its surge in growth is fueled by the premiumization trend in China, where 56% of consumers expect to increase their overall consumption spending in 2023, driven by the desire to improve their lifestyle, according to a survey from consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
“We think that customers have a lot of choices now and you need to be premium to win. That’s a global phenomenon, but I definitely feel it even more so in China,” said Hoye.
Over 2,000 people signed up for Faction Skis’ limited-edition freestyle skis collab with Swiss watch brand IWC Schaffhausen in November last year. It also partnered with Italian fashion house Prada for a mountain freestyle ski collection for its Fall Winter 2022 release.
In expanding across China, Faction Skis has had to build up its e-commerce presence with the help of Tmall to reach digitally savvy consumers in the world’s largest e-commerce market.
Online channels account for 15% of the company’s sales worldwide, but this jumps closer to 40% in the Chinese market, according to Hoye.
The brand tapped Tmall’s digital tools to showcase the specifications and technicality of its products and also used videos and pictures embedded in the Tmall store to replicate the experience in-store.
It leveraged Tmall’s lottery tool to launch its limited-edition signature skis designed by Finnish freestyle skier Antti Ollila in March, which saw hundreds of consumers compete for two sets.
“What’s important to us as a brand and people who care about the products is we want a similar experience. We want the expertise and the feeling of the brand to come through,” said Hoye.
Core to its omnichannel approach is livestreaming. It hosts livestreaming regularly from its showroom, where they engage with consumers to help them find the products that work best for them.
Beyond gear and equipment, Faction Skis sells sports lovers a lifestyle of adventure, community and athleticism that it hopes will take hold in China.
Faction Skis brought the Olympics star Gu on as an ambassador in 2019 and has sponsored Chinese skiing athletes from Team China, including freestyle skiers Yang Ruyi and Hou Jianbo.
“The Faction team here is absolutely dedicated to making skiing accessible to everyone,” said Hoye.
For the many Chinese consumers who haven’t tried skiing – yet – Faction Skis is also seeking to give viewers a taste of the mountain without leaving home.
It is documenting short and feature-length films that have been shown in over 30 countries, and the brand plans to release its first movie filmed in China in the fall this year, shot at the iconic Changbai Mountains.
To encourage Chinese consumers to give it a whirl, the ski brand has also started organizing demo sessions at resorts across the country, giving them the chance to try the equipment for themselves.
“I’m really proud to say that between the skis we make and the media and our inspiring athletes, we’re a catalyst in the growth of skiing in the West and, and certainly here in China,” said Hoye.
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