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Across the globe, activewear is outperforming almost every other sector, with total sales predicted to rise a further 6.8% to $576 billion by 2024 (CAGR). Much of this growth is fuelled by increasing consumer demand, as activewear becomes a core wardrobe staple and the influence of fashion in athleisure wear continues to rise. 

In such a thriving sector, it’s perhaps not surprising that competition has never been so fierce, with the long-standing champions of activewear currently fighting hard to retain their titles, as new challenger brands come into play. And some of their opponents aren’t even from the sporting or outdoor world at all; with Primark, Topshop and H&M all developing activewear ranges at really affordable prices, and Amazon getting in on the game too. Technology and social media is also enabling a new breed of challenger brands to disrupt this sector where familiar players have had a firm footing for many years.

Upping their game
Creativity and innovation have become a key strategy for success for many brands, and the front-runners in this sector are clearly upping their game by taking a highly imaginative approach. In a bid to outpace one another, progressive activewear brands are amplifying their brand experiences and transforming their stores into active product playgrounds. They’re also embracing the very latest tech to communicate with their customers in radically different ways.

We’re fascinated by this sector, not only because it’s a rich source of inspiration, but also because it’s a market that’s highly influenced by the buying behaviour of Generation Z. It seems that it’s not just those making the boldest moves who are winning in this sector, it’s those who are targeting younger consumers with creativity and relevance.

Re-writing the rules
Naturally this sector has always been inspired by youth culture, but today it’s clear that the attitudes and behaviours of Generation Z are having a profound impact. So far-reaching is their influence, we believe that it’s re-writing the rules of consumer engagement in branding, advertising and design; as what worked for previous generations just doesn’t cut it today. So how different are younger consumers today and what are the new rules of engagement?

The age of influence
As the first truly digitally native generation, Generation Z have never known anything other than the connected ‘always-on’ world we live in today. They shop in a way older generations don’t even understand; embracing channels, platforms and technologies to connect with brands in a completely different way.

They think very differently too. Described by many as the ‘Pivotal Generation’, they’re said to be turning away from the common attitudes and beliefs of older generations, and cutting their own path. In many ways they’re a tough customer, with high standards and an ethical and entrepreneurial outlook, and they’re drawn to brands who share their sense of purpose and can-do attitude.

New cultures and sub-cultures are emerging and these shifts in attitudes and buying behaviours are driving radical change in the activewear sector. Our team at Mynt have taken a deep-dive into this subject, analysing the new rules of engagement with Generation Z, and exploring the key trends shaping the future of the activewear sector from a design, advertising and marketing perspective. Three of these trends include:

REI, Washington

01 Hyper-local community spirit
Younger consumers care deeply about community and the most influential activewear brands and retailers are fostering a sense of togetherness and local connections by bringing like-minded fans together.

The idea of creating community hubs in-store isn’t new, but it’s really interesting to consider how far the concept of the store as a community hub is evolving. What was once the simple addition of a cafe, workshop or event space has evolved to far more extreme concepts that not only attempt to connect to the community, but offer a practical and meaningful purpose. For example, the Arc’teryx store in Vancouver includes a Community Space, where up-to-date information on climbing condition in the area are published, providing valuable advice to their outdoor-enthusiast fans.

The ‘clubhouse’ concept is one we’ve been watching evolve for several years, and we’re now seeing brands such as Asics following in the footsteps of Nike and Adidas and Rapha by launching Asics Run, offering a meeting point and practical hub to explore their passion for running on the streets of Tokyo. Similarly, China’s emerging activewear label Runner Camp is taking on the established global names in this region with a concept store including a gym. 

Today, it seems the emphasis is firmly placed at a local, grass-roots level. Even the most global of brands are adopting a hyper-local approach and helping the communities they are within. For example, we love the addition of the skate bowl in Selfridges’ new designer streetwear department, and the full-scale basketball court in Nike’s Jumpman store in LA because they’re genuinely used by the local community.

 

02 Next-generation Service
A strong sales-driven approach feels totally out of sync with the relaxed vibe of activewear, therefore it’s not surprising that we are seeing a significant shift in selling techniques in this sector.

Despite being so comfortable with shopping online, Generation Z really values customer service and are drawn to brand experiences that are carefully tailored to their wants and needs. Many of the traditional rituals of exceptional service are being revived and rebooted to serve the next-generation of shoppers. Although the ideas are familiar, how they play out has completely changed, as they’re enhanced through all that digital tech can enable.

A concierge-culture is emerging in-store, where contextual rather than product knowledge is key. You’re just as likely to ask about the best running routes in the city as you are about the latest product technology. 

Jason Markk, London

After-care services are also on the rise, largely fuelled by sneakerhead culture. The Holystic sneaker laundry store in Singapore and the Jason Markk space, nestled within the Size? Store in London, both caught our eye for their aesthetic that feels like a fresh take on a very traditional practice.

 

Appealing to Gen Z’s ‘on demand’ mind set, next-generation service initiatives in this sector are also geared towards speed and convenience. Many brands and retailers are experimenting with the latest digital technologies to deliver the ultimate convenience.

Nike appear to have made streamlining the process a mantra, with the launch of their ‘speed shop’ in their flagship store in New York and their vending machines, lockers and ‘curb service’ in their LA store. We particularly loved Nike Korea’s digital solution to standing in line for limited-edition sneakers, where sneakerheads waited online using avatars in the first ever hashtag queue on Instagram to buy Air Max trainers!

 

Nike House of Innovation, New York

03 Female Empowerment

One of the key areas that we think is likely to develop further in the next few years is that of targeting the female customer. With their increasing global consumer spend, there are a growing number of brands and retailers in the activewear sector who are beginning to steer their product development and brand messaging towards the increasingly empowered female consumer.

The latest brand communications and advertising campaigns from many of the key players in the activewear sector suggest that we are finally seeing a push for more authentic inclusivity. Much of the brand storytelling now centres on celebrating achievements, exploding stereotypes and nurturing female communities. Body positivity is also key, as the focus on wellbeing, strength and empowerment comes into play – with relatable role models emerging from both athletic and non-athletic backgrounds.

Next, it will be interesting to see this have a bigger impact on the physical store environment, which still is often very masculine in tone. We think there’s a lot of scope in re-imagining an activewear retail environment that genuinely meets the wants and needs of the female activewear shopper.

The New Rules of Engagement
As activewear brands, both large and small, attempt to connect with younger consumers it’s clear that the rules of consumer engagement have completely changed. At the heart of this change we’ve identified two guiding principles: 

Firstly, it’s important to target Generation Z with meaning and relevance; not gimmicks, size, scale or showmanship. It’s crucial to look beyond preconceived perceptions and traditional stereotypes and to understand your consumer today; what do they truly need? what do they value? what will they thank you for?  

Secondly, it’s also key to think about how you will make them feel rewarded for their brand loyalty, appreciated for their time and attention, and valued as a customer. So many of the initiatives that we have noted shared a common link – they’re attempting to spark a genuine, personal connection with the consumer.

It’s truly become a level playing field out there. Challenger brands with much smaller budgets can steal market share far more easily than ever before. The most stand-out concepts that we noted weren’t always the boldest, or the biggest, or the most expensive – they were the ones that demonstrated the most empathy and understanding for their customer, and the most creativity, originality and imagination in their design.

Request a copy of ‘Activewear: Champions and Challengers’ report