Adidas and the Athleisure Advantage (Or Why Leggings Are the New Jeans)
Athleisure became a go-to trend among American women due to its associations with health, easygoing style, versatility, comfort, and practicality. This was reflected in the rise of garments such as yoga pants and leggings, which as a natural progression from skinny jeans offered a look that was sleeker, more comfortable, and would keep its shape. Since its takeoff in the early 2010s, athleisure has also incorporated menswear, and even high-end labels have created their own version of athluxury. But how much are brands really benefitting from the athleisure movement?
If we look at current athletic wear brands through the BAV PowerGrid – which plots brands relative to one another based on energized differentiation, relevance, esteem, and knowledge – we see new and established athletic brands have both strengthened and declined since the start of this trend (see Figure 1). Nevertheless, wide sweeping trends like athleisure give older brands the perfect opportunity to regain their relevance, likability, and awareness among consumers while asserting their unique identities in new ways. A prime example, Adidas has successfully started a brand revival thanks to the permanence of athleisure and more culturally-relevant partnerships and messaging, particularly towards a Millennial audience.
Going into 2015, Adidas was a mass market brand with modest differentiation in the U.S. (see Figure 2). To compete against industry leaders like Nike and popular newcomers like Under Armour and Lululemon, Adidas began to experiment with new creative partnerships. That February, it debuted Kanye West’s footwear line Yeezy and released it over the summer. In addition, the athleisure microtrend of the clean white sneaker, which developed in 2014 and remained strong throughout 2015, turned Adidas’ Stan Smiths into an overnight sensation and a closet must-have among men and women of all ages. The brand also increased its presence in American sports by introducing new products geared towards basketball and football. Furthermore, Adidas continued appealing to the young segment by signing Selena Gomez for the Fall 2015 campaign of Adidas neo, a secondary line that caters to 14-19 year olds through a fast fashion model. It also introduced 24-year-old supermodel Karlie Kloss as the face of its ongoing Stella McCartney x Adidas collaboration during Fall 2015. As a result, Adidas’ brand equity increased in Q3 among the general population, pushing it back in the direction of leadership (see Figure 2). The effects of Adidas’ efforts were even more pronounced among male consumers under 35 who found the new shoe designs both appropriate for play and in line with urban streetwear looks (see Figure 3).
By 2016, Adidas had fully tapped into athleisure by merging sport with style and pop culture. Among other efforts, 2016 saw singer Rita Ora as the face for Adidas Originals’ spring line, Adidas as an Olympic Games sponsor, and collaborations with Pharrell Williams, fashion label Y-3, and Urban Outfitters. Adidas’ upbeat “Here to Create” film campaign with Instagram-y vibes featured female athletes like tennis icon Caroline Wozniacki and WNBA star Candace Parker. Increased female representation was also coupled with more culturally diverse models in campaigns, reflecting the changing ethnic landscape of the Millennial and Gen Z markets. In the end, trendy lines along with youth-related messaging improved Adidas’ brand equity especially among females under 35 (see Figure 3). Though overall brand equity performance fluctuated throughout 2016, Adidas ultimately maintained its positioning among the general population, revealing the brand’s slow but steady move to revival (see Figure 4).
By the end of 2016, the Adidas brand had gained the top attributes of Social and Simple among the general population, further aligning itself with athleisure’s modern and connected target audience. Trendy and Stylish also became leading attributes behind High Quality, highlighting Adidas’ efforts to create more visually appealing, premium products. Among Millennials specifically, Adidas became more connected with leadership. Already associating Adidas with quality, fun, and trendiness, by the end of 2016, young men also saw the brand as Original and Social while young women also viewed the brand as Simple and Friendly (see Figure 5).
A more exciting yet universal clothing option, active wear continues to promote double digit sales growth while denim sales decline by 5% or more each year. In short, athleisure is the new denim; leggings are the new jeans. By embracing the athleisure movement, Adidas managed to successfully recreate brand momentum over the past two years, allowing for an increase in brand stature as well as increased sales and popularity both within and outside the U.S. Well-positioned for a proper revival, Adidas should also leverage attributes such as Authentic, High Performance, Cares about Customers, and Energetic to maintain a positive reception among younger consumers and regain market leadership.