Fitness app Keep dethroned in China as Jay Chou’s bestie became Douyin’s workout king
Liu Keng-Hung, the Taiwan-born singer, actor, and fitness trainer, recently took over Douyin by storm. With over 66 million followers on Douyin, the 49 years-old celebrity has quickly become the most viral fitness content creator in China, surpassing Germany’s Pamela Reif, the most popular fitness trainer on the China internet. The latter has managed to obtain over 8 million followers on Bilibili, another Chinese mainstream video platform. Liu’s cyber gravitation has also grinded Keep, a domestically dominant fitness app, to dust. The Shanghai-based app has an accumulated user of 300 million since 2015 and owns 34.4 million monthly active users as of 2021.
Liu and his wife Vivi Wang would live stream creative daily workouts on Douyin as well as create short video tutorials, repurposing the hit songs of Taiwanese hip-hop artists Jay Chou. Their amusing interactions help cheer up audiences at home, who were otherwise feeling isolated due to the pandemic containment measures. Followers referred to themselves as “Liu Keng-Hung girls” and made light of China’s lipstick king Li Jiaqi, saying, “Li Jiaqi is after my wealth, and Liu Keng-Hung is after my health.”
However, this does not rule out the possibility of Liu profiting from his followers. Ever since Liu went viral, rumors have circulated that he charges millions, if not tens of millions, for advertising commissions. Given his sudden change of outfits in his April 24 livestream, many suspect Liu has already begun advertising for major brands such as Li-Ning. Such claims have not been acknowledged by Liu’s agency, WuYou Communications, which previously stated that its primary focus is on providing quality content to followers rather than commercial collaborations with brands. Even without advertising, Liu’s livestream sessions generate a sizable amount of tips and donations. According to his livestream statistics on April 19, Liu’s account can now receive up to 240,000 yuan in a single day.
Liu’s success stems from the growing home workout culture in China, as evident by Nintendo Switch’s launch. By the end of 2020, at least 1 million units of the Tencent distributed Nintendo Switch consoles were sold, making Nintendo the largest console seller in China. That is a remarkable record as the console has only entered the market a year prior. Notably, different from import versions, the Tencent version of Switch consoles has limited functions and limited games. As of May 2022, there are only 32 apps and games on Tencent’s Switch. Trending titles include fitness games Ring Fit Adventure, Mario Tennis, Jump Rope Challenge, and Just Dance Unlimited. Consumers were attracted to the product mainly because of its fitness and sports content.
Since the pandemic, Chinese content platforms have also been focusing on the fitness sector, as people have more time at home and are constantly looking for ways to bring outdoor activities indoors. Home workouts and living room workouts have grown in popularity on platforms such as Douyin, Kuaishou, Bilibili, and Xiaohongshu since 2020. According to Douyin, the number of sports and fitness videos increased by 134% year on year in 2021, while Kuaishou had over 600,000 fitness-related livestream hosts in the same year, producing nearly 20,000 short videos and 10,000 livestream sessions per day.
When pandemic-induced demands failed to keep the home fitness sector afloat — let’s face it, working out can be tedious and painful — content creators have sought out to make their videos more entertaining and socializing. While gamifying the exercise process, as Ring Fit Adventure has done, makes the mundane activity more interesting, livestream workouts have the unrivaled advantage of creating a sense of community through live comments and reactions. Audiences who participate in the workouts at home feel as if they are part of a united front against poor health, which promotes interest and persistence.
Other platforms, such as Douyin, are inherently more casual and entertaining than Keep, China’s largest fitness platform, allowing users who were previously uninterested in exercises to stumble upon related content and begin working out. Keep has a smaller user base because it only appeals to people who are already interested in fitness. Keep has attempted to make itself more entertaining by enlisting the services of content creators from other platforms, such as Pamela and Zhou Liuye, who have over 9 million followers on Bilibili but only 5.3 million on Keep. In order to maximize their followers and influence, these creators frequently operate on multiple platforms other than Keep at the same time, however such practices do not always help Keep sustain its own influence.
Keep’s prospectus states that its monthly active users increased from 29.7 million in 2020 to 34.4 million in 2021, but the company has yet to achieve profitability. The company has lost 5.4 billion yuan in the last three years — the app was already struggling with profitability models before Liu Keng-Hungs came into the picture, as several attempts have proven futile.
Keep has introduced a fitness product line that includes smart treadmills, yoga mats, smart bracelets, and other accessories. These products account for more than half of Keep’s total revenue, but the company faces stiff competition from Xiaomi and Huawei, which have more experience, brand awareness, and mature technology than Keep.
Keepland, Keep’s physical gym business, has also suffered a setback. Keep closed all Keeplands in Shanghai in April of last year, officially withdrawing from the Shanghai market, as revenue from physical stores accounts for less than one-tenth of the company’s total revenue.
Keep attempted to enter the food and beverage sector in 2019 with its mini-program in WeChat, offering salads, wraps, and sandwiches as takeout. The service was later called out for violating regulations because it lacked a physical location.
In China, the fitness industry is still in its infancy stages. According to TouBao Research, the penetration rate of gyms in China is only 3.1 percent. Customers in China are unfamiliar with the concept of paying for online fitness content, just as they are unfamiliar with paying trainers for private in-person sessions. Keep and the Liu Keng-Hungs on other platforms are simply attempting to capitalize on a niche market. It’s unclear whether Liu’s fans will still admire him if his content includes commercial collaborations and advertising campaigns. Keep and the Liu Keng-Hungs in China appear to be stuck in a quagmire, and they may need to figure out how to increase user stickiness and find a sustainable profit model.