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 sportswear, the 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 percent 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.
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.
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 a strategic adviser. Day was the 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,” says 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.”
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