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Global Sportswear Brands Making a Play for Women

With an eye on the growing women’s market, historically male-oriented sportswear brands are making changes to their strategy.
Misty Copeland in Under Armour's campaign "Unlike Any" | Source: Under Armour
  • Kati Chitrakorn

LONDON, United Kingdom — "You don't stand in front of a mirror before a run and wonder what the road will think of your outfit. It would not be easier to run if you dressed sexier. The road doesn't notice if you're not wearing lipstick. The only thing the road cares about is that you pay it a visit once in a while." Anyone who has seen the 2000 Nancy Meyers comedy "What Women Want" will recognise these lines from a fictional Nike commercial, conceived by a male advertising executive who has an accident and ends up with the ability to hear what women are thinking. The concept, which focuses on a woman's desire to simply run on the pavement without superficial judgement or expectations, is a success — and one that sportswear brands can still derive lessons from 17 years later.

For years, athletic products for women were simply designs for men in smaller sizes and more feminine colours. For many companies, women haven’t been the main focus — or even taken into account at all — when products, retail experience and marketing messages were being created. “In the past women had to take the hand-me-downs from the men’s wardrobe and make them work,” says Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at the NPD Group. But today, the ‘shrink it and pink it’ strategy no longer works. “Now [the female consumer] knows that brands can, in fact, make women-specific products and she’s demanding that they do so.”

In 2016, US apparel sales grew by 3 percent, reaching $218.7 billion, according to data compiled by the NPD Group. Athleisure continued to be a top growing segment that year, with an 11 percent increase that made it a $45.9 billion market. Including women in the sportswear conversation comes at a time when they account for a significant share of all buying decisions. A 2013 Nielsen report reveals that American women alone wield $5 trillion to $15 trillion in purchasing power annually. “Women drive a majority of consumer spending, so it’s smart business to focus on the women’s market,” says Bridget Brennan, chief executive of The Female Factor, a strategic consulting firm focused on the study of women consumers.

Brennan also notes an increase in women participating in sport: Of the more than 11,000 athletes who took part in the 2016 Rio Olympics, 45 percent were women. It's a far cry from the first modern Olympics 120 years ago in Athens, where all 241 athletes were men. There are also more women identifying as sports fans. "On average, across 24 major countries representing the Americas, Europe and Asia, nearly half of all women now declare themselves either interested or very interested in sport compared to 69 per cent of men," says Paul Smith, founder and chief executive of Repucom, a sports research firm.

Many businesses have taken heed. Mainstream sportswear players like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour now feature women in their marketing campaigns and are developing lines that women want to wear. But is it too late? As more women buy into the sportswear sector, more brands are competing for a place in the market and there is greater access to affordable, trend-led athletic gear at the likes of Asos and Amazon. There is also competition from women-focused activewear brands like Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, as well as newer rivals like Ultracor and Outdoor Voices.

Speaking to the female athlete

For International Women's Day in March, Nike — which is currently the market leader in both men’s and women’s activewear according to NPD — launched three films, in the Middle East, Russia and Turkey, aimed at challenging gender stereotypes in each region. “Our women’s business is one of the categories that we’re supercharging and putting more resources against, with the greatest potential for growth and highest returns,” says Amy Montagne, vice president and general manager of Global Nike Women’s.

In 2015, Nike announced ambitious plans to hit $50 billion in sales by 2020 — and the women’s business is a massive opportunity. The Oregon-based company pushed its marketing spend to $804 million in 2016, an increase of 10 percent year on year, with a focus on its women’s offering, which it plans to grow into an $11 billion business by 2020. “Nike’s women’s business surpassed $6.6 billion this past fiscal year and outpaced the growth of our men’s business in 2016 as well,” says Montagne.

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For Autumn/Winter 2017, Under Armour debuted "Unlike Any", an entirely digital execution featuring six female athletes across a variety of sports, including ballerina Misty Copeland, stuntwoman Jessie Graff and champion sprinter Natasha Hastings. “When brands talk about women’s performance, their achievements have always been compared to men. At the Olympic games, the female swim champion was compared to ‘the Michael Phelps of swimming’. [Women] want to be measured by their own success and achievements, which is what inspired the ‘Unlike Any’ campaign,” says Pam Catlett, general manager of women’s at Under Armour.

According to the NPD Group, Under Armour commands 7.1 percent of the men's activewear space in the US and 3.8 percent of women's this year through May. The women’s business currently accounts for around $1 billion of Under Armour’s $4.8 billion revenue. Among the Baltimore-based brand’s challenges is that “we’ve grown up as a traditional sporting goods brand that began in men’s athletic performance apparel… our competitors have been in the [women’s market] for a while,” says Catlett. “It’s an area you’ll see us accelerating and evolving into as we look into 2018.”

Adidas, too, has released female-centric campaigns over the past year. In February, the athletic brand launched a global campaign called "Unleash Your Creativity", which tells the stories of 15 women athletes, including supermodel Karlie Kloss, fitness influencer Hannah Bronfman and fitness instructor Robin Arzon. This is a stark change in strategy for the German brand, which, through its 97-year history, has partnered with the biggest sports stars who were almost always male, like Jesse Owens, Derrick Rose and David Beckham.

The increased female focus is part of Adidas’ strategy to double its share of the female sporting goods market by 2020. In an investor address in March 2017, board member Eric Liedtke said that the company is “not happy where we are today” when it comes to its position in the women’s market, which represented 23 percent of Adidas’ revenue in 2016. He vowed to lift that proportion to 28 percent within four years.

“Women are the biggest growth opportunity for Adidas and our women’s business is currently growing faster than men’s,” says Nicole Vollebregt, who is Adidas’ first global head of women’s products. Adidas also recently appointed Christine Day as strategic adviser. Day was chief executive officer from 2008 to 2013 at Lululemon, best known for ushering in the athleisure era by creating yoga pants for women to wear all day. “The women’s market is a crowded space and we have to make sure that we’re staying ahead of evolving trends.”

“What we’ve seen over the past year are strong empowerment campaigns that are focused exclusively on women. Our cultural ideas around gender have evolved, and femininity and athleticism can now go hand in hand,” say The Female Factor’s Brennan. She notes that men and women don’t need to be targeted separately. “There has been this idea in the past with many historically masculine brands that marketing to women means excluding men. That’s not the case. Marketing to women doesn’t mean excluding men, but it does mean excluding stereotypes.”

Combining style with versatility

Mainstream sportswear players also need to focus on creating products and services specifically designed for women. “Like any athlete, women are looking for products that are going to help them perform at a high level — and perform comfortably. She’s doing many activities and the more versatile a product can be, the better,” says NPD’s Powell.

“I think it also really requires an understanding that some of the products [for women] are just different. For instance, if she’s running in a marathon she’s going to want a certain kind of sports bra. If she’s doing yoga, she’ll probably want to wear something different,” he adds. “What some male-oriented brands have failed at is really understanding that [the female consumer] has multiple needs and there isn’t just one product that’s right for her.”

More women are buying into the sportswear sector as they prioritise self-transformation and wellness. In 2016 alone, the global market for health and wellness reached £539 billion (about $732 billion) and is expected to grow by a further 17 percent by 2021 to £640 billion ($869 billion), according to Euromonitor International. What’s prompted the shift in attitudes? A blend of social media and a growing consciousness about the importance of physical health, according to Brennan. “Women today have a broad definition of what it means to be active. It doesn’t necessarily mean being involved in a specific sport. That attitude has helped to drive the growth of athleisure and it’s creating an opportunity for a variety of fitness apparel,” she says, noting that “skinny” no longer correlates to being “beautiful”.

Marketing to women doesn't mean excluding men, but it does mean excluding stereotypes.

"The opportunity we see for our women's business is to infuse more styles and versatility into our product offering. Women want a product that performs while they're in their fitness activity, but we know they're also going to wear that product in other aspects of their lives — often 24/7," says Catlett. At Under Armour's most recent earnings call, chief executive Kevin Plank said that the company needs to move "out of acquisition mode and into activation mode" by focusing on creating new products and improving its assortment.

“Under Armour’s roots are in technical performance, so that’s what people already expect from us. We can surprise and elevate our offering through more style and versatility. One example is our collection with Misty Copeland. It’s one of our most technical performance-focused products, but it’s also very stylish. We’ve also introduced layering options on top of our bras and bottoms, which are the foundation of our business,” adds Catlett.

Offering a range of sizes is also key — something that several mainstream sportswear brands are finally coming around to. “Brands are recognising that the consumer has changed. In the US, the average women wears a size 16. But many brands have been reluctant to make plus-size products. Victoria’s Secret only recently came out with a sports bra in 27 sizes for chest and cup. Most of the sports bras that are made by men’s brands are [sized from] S or XL, so she’s not even getting the proper fit. Brands really have to evaluate what the consumer wants and make products that are appropriate for her,” says Powell.

Following an immensely popular sports bra campaign last July, featuring plus-size model Paloma Elsesser, Nike has expanded its plus size offering with the "Black and White" collection, a range of fashion-forward shorts, tops, bras and leggings, which are designed to fit and flatter larger women. "Women's appetite for newness and choice has never been higher," says Nike's Montagne. "Their connected world means unlimited access to new products. So when they find something they love, they want more versions of it — with improved performance, innovation and style. We'e reacting to this by refreshing our approach to women's plus-size by extending the line to 90 styles and improving fit and style options."

Meanwhile, Adidas has been designing more sneakers, jackets and other garments specifically for women’s sport. The brand recently unveiled the Pure Boost X sneaker, with motion-tracking technology that studies the movement of the female foot. “The first running sneaker designed specifically for a woman’s foot, it has a unique floating arch to provide maximum support,” explains Adidas’ Vollebregt.

Upgrading the store experience

Sportswear brands are also taking the retail experience into account. According to data from Euclid, which works with retail businesses to make data-driven decisions, 65 percent of women prefer shopping in-store to e-commerce, as it is easier to try clothes and receive personalised recommendations. Only 55 percent of men feel the same way.

Adidas women's fitness studio in London | Source: Adidas

Nike currently operates several women's only-stores worldwide: in Shanghai, Newport Beach and London. “Women are choosing brands who lead with elevated service and new experiences,” says Montagne. “They want brands that are engaged and make a personal connection, which is why we’re creating compelling experiences in both Nike-owned environments and with our best partners. We have a new women’s sneaker concept in London that includes a new footwear merchandising model led by more localised storytelling. We’ve also created digital studios in New York and Shanghai, which introduces new ways for consumers to connect with our product, through augmented reality and geo-locations.”

In February 2017, Adidas launched a women-only fitness studio in London, where certified personal trainers, fitness influencers and Adidas ambassadors host free workout sessions. “We are committed to providing a premium shopping experience: we’re currently exploring elevated product presentations on the shop floor [and] integrating more digital experiences and immersive product sessions for retail staff to learn more about the key items,” says Vollebregt. The space also doubles as an event location and a product testing ground. Vollebregt says that the brand may replicate the concept elsewhere if it proves successful.

“Women-only stores have been successful as they create experiences beyond just shopping,” says Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, director of the sports product management programme at the University of Oregon. "Nike Tokyo offers a personalised styling service and workout classes. The success of Sweaty Betty comes, in part, from connecting women with an in-store yoga studio and running groups. They are also excellent with merchandising their product and offering services to their target audience.”

“I think such a space is necessary,” agrees Powell. “When you look at the landscape, multi-brand retailers tend to be very male-focused. When we think of the sportswear retailers that have been successful, like Lululemon, while they carry some men’s products, it is clearly a women-focused retail store. Women-specific products and women-focused retail are key components to brands being successful. The mere fact that five of the top 10 largest women’s activewear brands are women-specific tells us something here.”

Brands are in danger of being viewed as superficial at best and condescending at worst.

It’s one thing to create high-performing products for the female customer, but it’s an entirely different challenge to get her attention and create a brand that speaks her language. Neil Boyarsky, who co-founded the multi-brand activewear retailer Bandier, makes the case that unlike men, women are not necessarily inspired by the prowess of top athletes, but are motivated by being part of a community.

"Who the influencers are today is very relevant. It's not just dominated by the core athletes," he says. "One of the things that big sportswear companies have neglected up until fairly recently is that the female customer, the millennial customer, cares about going out and participating in boutique fitness... It's a social endeavour, it's a lifestyle."

“Millennial and Gen-Z consumers are very focused on fitness and health, but their approach is different to the boomers,” agrees Powell. "It’s much more light-hearted and less competitive. They’re taking part in multiple activities that tend to have a social element to them.”

“The women’s market today has become very crowded and it’s no longer the domain of traditional pure athletic brands," says Brennan. "It feels like there are new brands being born every day in the athleisure space. Even celebrities have gotten in on the action with their own brands. But the opportunity is still great. Women of different types of fitness levels are looking for different kind of apparel for their fitness needs.”

But Brennan has a caveat: “It’s important to create a meaningful message or else you’re in danger of being viewed as superficial at best and condescending at worst," she warns. "Determining what substance a brand can bring to the conversation is important. A great advertising campaign is really still just the tip of the iceberg. Too often, the actual customer experience is where mistakes are made and sales are lost.”

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