Conversations with Lim Aik Leong

By Julian Rocero and Soong Hung Hao

As Head of Football (Greater China Area) at Adidas, Lim Aik Leong is responsible for setting business strategies and product direction for Adidas football in China, to facilitate connections with local consumers and business expansion. He holds a Bachelor’s in Business (specializing in Marketing and Human Resource Consulting) from Nanyang Technological University. In this interview, he shares his experience pursuing a career in merchandising internationally, insights from his time at Adidas, and advice for aspiring students.

I am currently the Head of Football at Adidas for the Greater China region, and have been doing merchandising and product creation for the last 14 years. I am passionate about footwear and sports in general, and am fortunate to be able to work in this area thus far.

I started my career in Singapore, joining Nike right after graduation. I also had the opportunity to work in the Nike World Headquarters in USA for a few years before moving to Shanghai, where I am currently based. I recently joined Adidas last September.

My job can be summarised in three parts. The first is developing business strategy for football in the Greater China region. This includes working on distribution strategies and sales approaches in the Chinese marketplace, as well as understanding consumer needs. The second is selecting products from our global range that are most suitable for the Chinese market, and determining an appropriate price and target consumer base. The third is feeding local market insights to the global team such that they can create suitable products for the Greater China market.

Working in different regions and countries brings about different experiences. When in the US, I was working on product creation in the global team. I was on the receiving end of information that the marketplace provides, and I also worked closely with athletes on what they need to perform at their best. My goal was to create products that were highly innovative and suitable for the various key markets. Currently, as a member of the regional team with Adidas, I am responsible for providing insights to the global team for product development.

These experiences have taught me to see things from different perspectives and understand the different goals involved when working in different roles. My previous experience as a member of the global team is helpful in my current role in the regional team, as I can better communicate my needs to ensure greater understanding.

With the China market growing tremendously over the past five to ten years, there has been a palpable sense of local pride and patriotism. They prefer products that are made with local Chinese influences. Of course, they still adopt trends from the Western world, but they would also like international brands that draw on Chinese influences, whether from a sizing or story perspective. In the past, Chinese New Year products by Western brands would typically only incorporate a red/gold colourway, or contain symbolism of dragons. Nowadays, the general taste has shifted away from such graphics, and we have the flexibility to create more modern, relevant, and sophisticated stories that are inspired by local culture. The Chinese market definitely prefers products that are made specifically with them in mind over generic ones.

Different teams require different skill sets and possess different priorities. In the global team, when we create new products, the goal is to make the best product for performance at the highest level. The skill required is being able to elicit insights from consumers and the market, and your mindset should be more product-centric. This would require working alongside designers and athletes to make sure the design, colour, and graphics are relevant to the target consumer group.

In the regional team, it takes more balance and you should also ensure you have the most commercially-viable product. Most of the time, your best product makes up a minority of your sales, whereas the majority of your business is still in the more accessible, familiar products that common consumers purchase.

After being with my previous company, Nike, for 13 years, I encountered an opportunity to move to a role that I like. One of my biggest highlights was definitely moving to this new job, because I have returned to a role that I am passionate about. But it is also a funny feeling, moving to the competitor company. Compared to other industries like banking, where moving around often is rather common, moving from one brand to the other is quite an interesting experience in the sporting industry, perhaps because of the highly rivalrous culture of sports.

In an ideal world, I would like to move back to Singapore. However, Singapore is also a relatively small market, so there are feweropportunities for merchandising roles there. I would love to continue working in the merchandising industry, or be able to share my experience with the younger generations who are interested in merchandising or product creation, by giving them guidance and advice. I like what I am doing, so I can see myself doing the same thing or gearing more towards mentoring young talents that are interested in this line of work.

I think it is totally wrong. Merchandising is a combination of art and science. It is indeed important to have a good eye for products, since product selection and feedback is at the core of your job. But it also involves data analysis, such as monitoring sell-through rates, profit margins, and overall revenue. Thus, being well-versed with numbers is also essential. There are rarely people who are very balanced in terms of art and science, so you can be leaning towards one or the other. Nevertheless, it is important to have both in this line of work.

I entered doing something I was very passionate about—football. One of the things I learned is that your personal passion for a product or field may not translate to success from a business perspective. Numbers talk, so while you might really like a product, you have to look at the business side of things and make compromises. This ties back to the previous question about the skills required for merchandising. The job is not just about creativity, but also data analysis and the ‘science’ portion. Both of them are required to help you make the best decision.

While everyone in the organization has the same end goal of growing the business, different functions might have different KPIs, so disagreements are also natural. For instance, the product team aims to create the most innovative, creative, and technologically advanced products. Meanwhile, the marketing team might want to simplify product advertisements so that consumers can easily understand the product benefits. The sales team might also have feedback on the pricing, and may prefer to price products at a more accessible range.

This requires much discussion across different functions to ensure everyone is aligned and progressing as a cohesive unit. It is not only about the fanciest or most creative product, but also what is the most relevant to the marketplace. Learning to juggle the critical balance between innovative products that showcase the brand’s DNA, and fundamental essentials that make up the base of the business, has definitely been one of the hardest lessons I have learned.

Interestingly, though China was first to be hit with the pandemic, its economy has also recovered the fastest until the most recent outbreak in March. Regardless, there has certainly been a shift towards e-commerce here, due to the speed and convenience that it brings. From simply being a sales-centric platform, e-commerce has taken a more experiential and engaging slant. The question now is how to better engage users through stories and various features to drive consumption. These features include live-streaming, video content, and augmented reality. There has been much development over the last few years, and it is interesting to witness.

Personally speaking, I believe brick-and-mortar stores are here to stay, because the touch and feel of physical products is irreplaceable. This simply challenges physical stores to improve on their visual merchandising and in-store design, to attract consumers into making physical trips. A good example of brick-and-mortar done well are Gentle Monster stores. They look like art galleries and encourage greater foot traffic, as even visiting the store is a form of experiential marketing. We have moved past traditional brick-and-mortar stores, and the goal now is to tweak operations and in-store service to ensure they can keep attracting consumers to visit again.

In the future, merchandising definitely needs to take on a more sophisticated role of ensuring differentiation amongst stores, instead of creating many identical stores.

For example, in China, even though there are many Adidas stores, we have divided them into different concepts. Sports-driven stores would focus more on providing an assortment of products that cater towards athletes of a certain sport. These products are more performance-based, and may offer the best running shoes, football boots, or sporting apparel.

Some stores are more lifestyle-driven; the feel and interior design of the store would be different. The mannequins and fixtures, for instance, are varied to create a more urban, casual, and comfortable feel. The products featured would also include the Adidas Originals range, which include more leisure wear.

The way to keep consumers engaged is to ensure that the store has a unique point of view, in terms of its positioning and concept. This ensures it can target the right consumers, combined with the right product assortment, quality of service, and expertise. That is where the future should be headed towards.

I have not been there long enough to fully absorb the culture, and I can only speak for the Adidas in China office. Each office will have different cultures depending on the local culture and the leadership team. In general, people here are very open and transparent, and are willing to freely discuss ideas and negotiate between viewpoints, which is a culture I enjoy. From a typical Asian perspective, avoiding conflict may be common, but this would prevent open discussions about different opinions. At the end of the day, everyone wants the best for the business, so we should bring up our ideas, talk about them, and move on. This culture is a great way to accomplish more without having any misunderstandings after the fact.

My university education has certainly helped me. Of course, not everything we study in school is transferrable to work, but the problem-solving and creative thinking skills have certainly helped. For example, while I did not particularly enjoy giving presentations in classes, the experience have undoubtedly been useful, since I now present in front of senior leaders regularly, and even to media sometimes during product launches. It is important to learn those skills and not take them for granted, so that you are prepared for the working world.

I studied marketing in university, not design, so I do not believe you have to had study design to enter merchandising. Being in merchandising does not directly involve designing the product, but rather understanding what the consumer needs are through market research and focus groups, and communicating this to designers through a product brief. Also, a genuine interest in the product would definitely help. Other than that, being observant to consumer needs and market trends, and being open to learning new things, are also essential traits for a merchandiser.

That is a tough question. Honestly, even going into Year 4 myself, I did not have a specific idea of what I wanted to do. It is about being willing to experiment, such as through internships, and to know what you like and dislike. This can help you refine and filter out potential career paths. Very rarely does a person know exactly what they want to do at such a young age. I have seen many colleagues in both Nike and Adidas who started out having completely different careers that were not in sports or merchandising. After a few job changes, they finally realised this is where their passion lies.

I am sure many students are usually anxious or undecided when they are graduating, and that is okay. You have a long career ahead, so there is time to find out. If you have not encountered the right opportunities or suitable job openings yet, you can find alternative roles that build the skills required to help you eventually land your dream job later. Remember: it is always a journey.