Throughout its 96-year history, the German athletic-wear company has partnered with athletes at the top of their game. As far back as the 1936 Olympics, Adidas sponsored the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens. From the very start of David Beckham’s football career in the early ’90s, he’s worn Adidas football boots. In 2012, Adidas signed basketball star Derrick Rose and created a shoe that bears his name.
The company’s biggest sport stars were almost always male. But these days, it’s making a concerted effort to reach female consumers, and the company’s branding strategists have determined that women respond to a different message. Rather than portraying women focused on a single sport, they believe female consumers will respond to images of women who incorporate their athletic pursuits into a busy lifestyle.
This shift comes, in part, because of broader cultural changes. According to Morgan Stanley Research, sports participation among high school girls has jumped from 17% to 35% in the last 35 years, which has cultivated a generation of women who want to incorporate fitness into their everyday life. This has driven the so-called “athleisure” trend: Activewear has moved out of the gym, with women wearing stylish yoga leggings and sweatpants to brunch and even the office
Brands have been quick to adapt to these changing norms. “There’s been a notable change in women’s retail, with every single brand—from H&M to Zara—having sportswear within their mix,” says Alison Stewart, VP of global brand strategy at Adidas. “There are more and more players coming in.” Sportswear sales have increased 42% over the last seven years and currently make up a $270 billion global market. According to Morgan Stanley’s projections, the outlook for sportswear over the next five years looks even more promising.
To tackle this challenge, Adidas has created key management positions that focus on catering to women. In February, Nicole Vollebregt, who has worked for Adidas in various roles for nearly two decades, became the company’s first head of global women’s business. “My team is tasked with championing the versatile female athlete throughout the organization,” Vollebregt says. “We work with all the other business units to make sure that we’re delivering products and experiences that she wants.”
The company also hired Christine Day, who was Lululemon’s CEO from 2008 to 2013, to be a strategic adviser. Day has valuable insight about why women’s activewear has become so popular in recent years, since Lululemon has often been described as the brand that ushered in the “athleisure” era by creating chic yoga pants that women wear all day. But Day is quick to point out that “athleisure” does not accurately describe what some women are looking for in their outfits, because the term suggests that they aren’t serious athletes. “The women I know who go to power yoga or spin class are not casual,” Day says. “Athleisure has led to a lot of poor-quality garments that aren’t really suited for performance sports. It’s become just a new form of casual wear.Adidas’s ultimate goal is to rebrand itself as a company that women will identify with. Day believes that this has been hard to achieve in the past because Adidas is a manufacturer, so its products appear in a wide variety of places—from Bloomingdales to Dick’s Sporting Goods to discount outlets—which makes it hard to control its own image. Adidas is hoping to right the course by claiming a voice on its own channels, from its website to its brick-and-mortar stores to its social media streams. The video series of women incorporating sports into their lives is a good example of this strategy at work. “When we embark on something new, it may take us a little longer because we are a big organization,” Vollebregt says. “But once we decide on an initiative and turn on the tap, we can ramp up extremely quickly, because we have thousands of our own stores globally.”