In our recent industry report, the results showed that the sports world is dominated by one huge brand.
Slam dunk. Home run. Gold medal. Take your pick of the sports metaphors: it was an overwhelming triumph for Nike (with Adidas coming in at second place).
One reason behind their success may be a shift in audience. Nike are encroaching on the fashion world, as well as focussing more and more on those historically neglected by sport: women.
The Goddess Nike
In Greek mythology, ‘nike’ means ‘victory’. The lesser known fact? Nike was a goddess, not a god.
Like victory not always being thought of as a goddess, athletics brands have often failed to cater for women.
With women’s sport under-broadcast and under-funded; with men dominating the highest ranks in the boardrooms of sports companies; and with an old industry-wide strategy to ‘shrink it and pink it’ (i.e. just take an item designed for men, make it smaller and add some colour), it’s no wonder that girls’ athleticism has forever been kept in second place.
But things are on the move. And the brands pioneering the change, are the ones who will reap the rewards.
Nike is very much associated with pushing boundaries before others follow suit (let it not be forgotten it was they, and not Adidas, who first partnered with Kanye West to make those famous Yeezy trainers).
Their ‘If You Let Me Play’ campaign of 1995 was a moving beginning to the fight for letting girls get involved with sport.
They took to the subject again in 2008 with their ‘Here I Am’ adverts. The simple plea for female athletes to be seen took aim at the lack of coverage of women’s sport. But although the ads were powerful and showed powerful women excelling, it was very much in the spirit that female sport should be taken seriously as well: women were still the underdog of the athletic world.
A decade on however, and we’re finally starting to see some acceptance of female athletes as just athletes.
Nike’s #betterforit campaign, a recent campaign aimed at women, was entirely divorced from women’s role as ‘second best’ in the sporting world. Relatable women push through the mental barriers of working out and, having done so, find themselves ‘better for it’.
It’s refreshing to see sports often practiced majoritarily by women take centre stage (yoga, and spinning for example), and to see women working out not as extraordinary anomalies, but as regular people.
And with their celebration of Serena Williams, Nike didn’t just put women on a level playing field, or gender-specify their achievements, they confidently aligned their brand around a sporting icon whose achievements rival anyone.
The ‘Margot vs. Lily’ campaign jumped off right where #betterforit left off. Targeted specifically at millennials, this miniseries of 8 episodes about two very different sisters spoke a different language to most sports advertising.
It starts out almost like an anti-sportswear ad. Instantly likeable Margot—quirkily-dressed and recently-fired—is the antithesis of sporty Lily. Margot stays behind to drink wine while Lily goes off on a jaunty run, and she’s horrified when Lily buys her Nike gear for Christmas. Lily, on the other hand, is every bit the Nike goddess. When she’s not jogging through Central Park, she’s checking her youtube fitness account. But despite exuding the life that Nike seemingly promote, she’s unhappy: everyone finds her zealous love of sport annoying; she misses a New Year’s countdown because she’s doing planks; and she has no one to call a friend.
It was a bold move from Nike: sports and sports influencers alike are somewhat ridiculed for the entire 8 slots. But because of the way it levels with consumers (we don’t all love exercise, and that’s okay!) it’s winning big. Nike Women is expected to reach $11 billion in revenue by the end of 2020 (up from $5.7 billion in 2015).
Not only did Margot vs. Lily take all women as its subject (the ones who like sport, and the ones who don’t) but it changed the game on how adverts have to be. Directed by Tricia Brock (a director of the smash hit, female-centric show, ‘Girls’), it blurred the lines between advertising and entertainment and looked to engage a new audience. It was funny, heartwarming, cynical, and inclusive. Where most sports adverts are focussed on physical prowess and superlatives (fastest, hardest, strongest—titles that will always be held by men), it brought something new to the table.
It’s no wonder that Nike were one of the most named brands in our ‘Women in Advertising’ survey when we asked ‘Name a brand that really ‘gets you’ when it comes to their advertising.’
The Athleisure Chest
The rise of women-specific marketing mirrors what’s going on in Nike’s business model. While their men’s business grew 9% in revenue in 2015, it’s women’s revenue grew by 20%. It’s a trend that’s happening across the athletics industry, and it’s been a catalyst for the rise (and the staying power) of Athleisure.
No longer just a trend, the concept of gym gear being worn outside of exercise spaces is here to stay. As women break further and further from the stiletto-wearing, handbag-toting idea of workwear, and the skirts-and-dresses idea of home clothes, there is a huge potential audience looking for something comfier and more practical.
As a gender, women are pressing harder for change and, as a result, the rules are becoming more fluid. A glance around at the footwear on a rush-hour tube carriage is a microcosm of this.
And Nike are working hard to make sure it’s defining this new market in a way that will be successful. As they swim deeper into the waters of fashion (Karlie Kloss fronted an enormous Nike campaign in 2014; and sports brands now partake in fashion weeks) they also make sure that high-spec excellence is still being touted (their flyknit sports bra took 600 hours of biometric testing to create, including digital body scans and motion capture).
It’s an important balance: it should look nice enough to wear around town, but the moment it strays into pure aesthetic territory is the moment brands lose their authenticity. Women don’t want to be sold anything less technically-excellent than men.
What’s more, Nike are working to extend the invite to all women. 2018 marks the first year of a whole new piece of apparel for their women’s collection. The Nike hijab, launched last December, is Nike looking to break down barriers that stop Muslim women from being able to take part in sports.
Only 18% of muslim women exercise regularly compared to 30% of the total female population, and numerous Muslim athletes have detailed the difficulties of competing at a professional level in a hijab that’s not designed for sport. For Ibtihaj Muhammad (a champion fencer, and Muslim woman), this goes a long way to making sports ‘an inclusive space’.
2017 also saw the launch of their first ever plus-sized range. It’s certainly overdue, but Nike is still one of the first athletics brands to venture into catering for larger women. Certainly there will be plus-sized women looking to work out (some to lose weight, some just to keep fit), and it’s almost paradoxical that larger fitness gear hasn’t previously existed.
It’s a pertinent example of where being inclusive is a win for both parties: these women are crying out for fitness gear that makes them feel good, and it’s a whole new market for Nike.
Nike are making steps towards marketing to women as individuals, rather than a monolith. It’s learning to cater for those who like exercise, and those who don’t. Those who like pink, those who practice religion, and those who aren’t skinny.
They’re expanding the scope of activewear to accommodate busy lives: wear it to the office; wear it at home; and, of course, wear it to the gym. All whilst doing what they’ve always done best: creating technically excellent products.
Whatever you’re making—be it sportswear or otherwise—if you spot an opportunity to expand your company’s vision to include previously-marginalised sections of the population, you open yourself up to audiences you hadn’t previously considered.
It’s important—and potentially life changing—for the marginalised groups that you invite into your brand, and in terms of revenue it’s simply good business. So go ahead and just do it.