Nike & women: Fitness or fashion?

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Nike wants women, lots of them. It certainly needs them if it’s going to achieve its aim of $11bn in women’s activewear sales by 2020 from the current $5.7bn. A little over-ambitious? Perhaps not. The segment grew 20% in Nike’s last financial year, double the rate of its men’s business.

Christina Shi, head of Nike’s direct-to-consumer unit told USA Today it’s seeing a “tectonic shift” in the way women are embracing athletic pursuits and athletic clothing. She said women in all age groups, at different income levels and in different cultures are getting into fitness.

Fitness or Fashion?

There’s more to it than that, of course. The fact is that the athleisure movement has made fitness clothing and accessories a fashion statement as much as a fitness one. Athleisure has become more acceptable in the workplace and as an off-duty fashion choice. Ergo, sales are rising.

Researcher NPD said women’s athletic clothing sales rose 9% in the 12 months to June, compared to 6.8% for the combined men’s and women’s category.

Dominant Company

Looking at all the figures in this report, it’s clear that not only is women’s growth outstripping men’s but that Nike’s growth is easily beating the market overall (and certainly that of struggling rival and athleisure pioneer Lululemon).

How so? Nike has the scale, it has the heritage, it has the fitness credibility, and it has the oh-so-deep pockets to make it a success in this market. What it doesn’t have is the field to itself. OK, Lululemon may be struggling but companies like Under Armour and Adidas aren’t, while the rest of the fashion sector is piling into the category from Tory Burch at the high end to just-about-every high street retailer lower down the price scale.

For now, while Nike remains the world’s biggest women’s fitness brand, the gap between it and its competitors isn’t as big as it is in men’s.

Not that this is holding the company back. The #betterforit ad campaign is a social media-based push to encourage women into athletic pursuits, something that’s more important for Nike than just encouraging them into athleisure as a fashion statement. “Everything we do starts with the athlete and performance first,” Amy Montagne, head of Nike’s women’s business told USA Today.

That means initiatives such as its tech-based Flywire sports bra, its Nike+ Training Club app, and expanding its women’s race series. But this latter initiative highlights just how different the task of targeting women compared to men is. With the races open to both men and women, USA Today said there are female-specific perks that include a race-day hairstyle bar at a 10K event in London this year and custom necklaces for participants.

Hmmmm. Whether that’s clever marketing that gets right to the heart of what the customer wants or a throwback to the days when you could only lure ‘the ladies’ by throwing in a free lipstick or apron, I’m not too sure. Either way, it seems to be working…

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