Today’s consumers aren’t just looking for great products and memorable experiences. They also expect brands to show a shared commitment to conscious, ethical lifestyles, or “purpose-driven brands.” This shift has huge implications for all industries, but is especially important for activewear and sports fashion brands.
After all, the activewear industry markets its products with notions of health, wellbeing, and vitality. In this context, it’s only fair for consumers to expect a level of commitment to wider social issues like sustainable manufacturing, ethical sourcing, labor equity, and more.
This commitment to authenticity and meaningful change is especially important for Gen Z fans. For these younger customers, churning out the same old products is no longer enough - companies also need to demonstrate how they’re making the world a better place.
For active wear brands, this creates a whole new set of challenges: What does conscious consumerism mean, exactly? How should brands respond to the values and concerns expressed by customers? And what does authenticity look like in practice?
In this post, we’ll examine how activewear brands Lululemon and Patagonia have reflected their distinctive, authentic values within conscious marketing campaigns.
Let’s start by looking at some key trends when it comes to brand authenticity.
What authenticity means for activewear brands
These days, consumers have more information than ever before about the products they’re purchasing and the brands that produce them.
Social media has democratized the sharing of information, and has given customers the ability to communicate directly with like-minded individuals. While this can help brands to attract new fans, it also raises the stakes when it comes to transparency and authenticity.
The level of information shared has already led to a number of high-profile crises, from Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating scandal, to the revelation that SoulCycle investor Stephen Ross hosted a fundraising dinner for a certain polarizing world leader.
SoulCycle found itself in a tricky spot after it was revealed a major company investor had hosted a fundraising event in support of United States President Donald Trump. Source: Vox
In this environment, consumers (particularly millennials and Gen Zers) want to see companies take a stand when it comes to things like LGBTQ rights, ethical clothing production, gender representation, and other important issues facing the world.
So, how should companies respond to these challenges? And what does this focus on authenticity mean for brands?
What does this focus on authenticity mean for activewear brands?
As noted by Forbes contributor Greg Petro, many brands - including big names in sports fashion and activewear like Adidas, UnderArmour, and others - have been slow to respond to consumer concerns around environmental and social policies.
“About half of Millennials say they research brands before buying,” he writes. In this context, taking an authentic stand on global issues is an important way to connect with younger consumers. Unfortunately, some attempts to communicate authenticity have fallen flat.
Where brands have put in the effort, however, they’ve seen some great results. For example, take a look at Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick, a savvy way for the company to align itself with social justice causes in the United States and boost brand visibility at the same time.
Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick is an example of authenticity in action. Source: Forbes
For activewear brands wanting to connect with younger fans and consumers, it is critical to demonstrate an authentic commitment to pressing social causes.
This commitment isn’t just about ethical production, either: brands should also consider the ways in which their products are marketed. That’s why drinks brand Diageo has rolled out a progressive framework to support the positive portrayal of women in its advertisements.
And it isn’t just customers who are demanding a more conscious approach to business. For example, in early 2019, the US Business Roundtable released a statement calling for companies to look beyond solely delivering value to shareholders.
Instead, said the statement, companies should invest in their employees, protect the environment, and deal fairly with suppliers. Doing so isn’t only the right course of action, but is also a way to maintain consumer confidence in companies around the world.
So, how should companies decide what authenticity means for them?
The best way to answer this question is to look closely at some examples of companies getting it right. Let’s start with Lululemon.
Case study #1: Lululemon’s refreshingly real marketing
When it comes to sportswear, the numbers don’t lie: in 2018, the global sportswear industry was valued at around $240 billion US. That’s a lot of customers with a lot of dollars to spend!
In such a large market, brands need to communicate in accordance with their distinctive values. They need to build communities of fans and set themselves apart from the competition with fresh and engaging advertising campaigns.
This is where Lululemon’s #boobtruth campaign comes in. Designed as a way to recognize the unique nature of every customer’s body, and the ways customers interact with Lululemon’s products, this campaign highlighted the importance of sports bra fitting for women.
The #boobtruth campaign also took aim at a lot of common misconceptions about the representation of women’s bodies in advertising, particularly the ways in which advertising sanitizes, sexualizes, and standardizes womens’ bodies.
Lululemon’s #boobtruth campaign: a great example of brand authenticity. Source: Instagram
Instead, #boobtruth introduced a refreshingly real take on activewear trends. The campaign included interviews with seven different women who talk candidly about their bodies, and what they need from activewear products to be comfortable.
This campaign generated a lot of interest, and served as a way for Lululemon to set itself apart from the competition. By breaking taboos around the representation of women’s bodies, Lululemon demonstrated its distinctive culture in an authentic, engaging way.
Now, let’s jump take a look at Patagonia’s support for climate awareness.
Case study #2: Patagonia’s conscious climate campaign
For brands, demonstrating authenticity is all about aligning company action with company values. In the case of outdoorwear brand Patagonia, authenticity is about protecting the natural environment. This includes promoting climate change awareness.
Patagonia’s close association with nature and outdoor activities makes its campaign in support of climate activism a great way to demonstrate authenticity. Not only did the company provide funding and support for climate change awareness, but it also created a channel for customers to express their opposition to climate change denial.
Patagonia’s campaign in support of climate action. Source: Teen Vogue
This kind of campaign isn’t just a reasonable response for any responsible company with an eye on conserving the world for future generations - it’s also a great way to strengthen brand identity in the eyes of fans and customers.
This campaign is an excellent example of a company standing up for its values. Here, Patagonia boosted its visibility, promoted climate change awareness, and strengthened its brand authenticity - all in a single campaign.
This example also shows that companies shouldn’t be timid when it comes to engaging in political movements - so long as the support offered is meaningful and consistent with your brand values and equity.
What Lululemon and Patagonia tell us about authenticity
At first glance, it might seem like there are plenty of differences between these two examples. After all, what could climate change and the representation of women’s bodies possibly have in common, right?
Look harder, and you’ll see the ways in which Lululemon and Patagonia are guided by their core values and brand identity are actually quite similar. These companies both:
- Focus on what’s important: These campaigns honed in on issues consistent with brand identity. Lululemon wants women to be comfortable in their sports bras, and Patagonia wants to make sure there’s still a world to explore in the future. Focusing on these issues feels natural and authentic.
- Engage customers in bold ways: Lululemon could have focused simply on the importance of sports bra fitting, and Patagonia could have supported nonspecific conservation efforts. Instead, Lululemon grabbed headlines with #boobtruth, and Patagonia opted for stark posters highlighting the gravity of the climate change threat.
- Demonstrate a depth of commitment: Authenticity is more than just words. That’s why Lululemon also offered free bra fitting guidance to customers, and why Patagonia donated money to climate change awareness efforts. These steps show customers how serious a brand is.
- Know how (and where!) customers talk about the important issues: To demonstrate authenticity, brands need to identify the issues their fans care about, as well as how they talk about these issues, and which platforms they use. In this case, Lululemon focused on Instagram, whereas Patagonia utilized physical posters alongside social media.
Focus on meaningful, values-driven engagement
Today’s consumers reward brands for communicating an authentic commitment to the issues they care about. No matter what industry you’re in, this makes it important to step up to the plate and get involved in the things that matter.
Before you do, however, you need to nail down the basics.
What kind of social action is consistent with your brand values? What is your brand equity? What exactly do your customers care about? And how can you engage these concerns in a way that is distinctive, real, and won’t come off as cringey?
As the examples of Lululemon and Patagonia show us, brands need a deep understanding of their customers to get it right when it comes to conscious marketing.
One way to develop this understanding? Leverage social intelligence.
We have a report diving even further into Gen Z tastes and preferences when it comes to sports fashion and activewear, so be sure to keep an eye out for that!