For years, athletic products for women were simply designs for men in smaller sizes and more feminine colors. 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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Combining Style With Versatility
Mainstream sportswear players also need to focus on creating products and services specifically designed for women. More women are buying into the sportswear sector as they prioritize 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.
Marketing to women doesn’t mean excluding men, but it does mean excluding stereotypes. 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.
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.
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 personalized recommendations. Only 55 percent of men feel the same way.
Nike currently operates several women’s only-stores worldwide: in Shanghai, Newport Beach and London. 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.
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. Nowadays, newer 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 a different kind of apparel for their fitness needs.
(All photographs are courtesy of the original owners unless otherwise indicated)