Activewear & Athleisure Industry Index 2021
Over the course of the last decade, activewear brands have transcended meeting the bare minimum of comfortable or breathable clothing by honing in on the concept of fashionable athleisure. It’s not uncommon to see biker shorts, sports bras, hoodies, or other traditional athletic clothes becoming part of a movement marrying activity and style. This movement has drastically expanded the market for activewear and athleisure, the latter of which is expected to grow from the $155.2 billion it generated in 2018 to $257.1 billion by 2026. For top-performing brands that have been adaptable and quick on their feet, 2020 has helped them find their footing in what will be the start to a booming experiential era.
While the apparel industry’s growth fell about 8%, activewear and athleisure’s growth only fell 2%, and market valuations for sportswear brands have now grown beyond their December 2019 peaks. Since the start of the pandemic, comfortable clothing promoting healthful living and the accessibility of online shopping have become essential to the millions of consumers spending most of their lives at home. In that time, social media and brands’ online activity have become vital venues of marketing. eCommerce has been expanding so fast that marketing reports and insights show the global online shopping market grew to nearly $4 billion in the last twelve months. Adding on to this exponential leap: almost 70% of Americans have now shopped online. The brands that have adapted to their customers’ new way of living have maintained their dominance in the activewear market and surpass other apparel retailers in sales growth, demonstrating that flexibility and accessibility drive profits.
Download and access the resource.
The State of Activewear and Athleisure: Industry Analysis
Even before the pandemic, consumers around the world had an increasing interest in fitness and health, innately accompanied by a steadily expanding activewear market. In the mid-2010’s, fitness and style met at the beginning of a boom in athleisure, a new facet of activewear characterized by adaptable clothing meant for both in and out of the gym, at the vanguard of which were celebrities such as Beyoncé and Rihanna. Activewear technology has married smarter dress codes to produce apparel sporting both comfort and elegance. Through Instagram marketing and the appeal of adopting a concurrently fashionable and laid-back appearance, athleisure has risen to become one of the biggest apparel trends of the 21st century, growing by almost 10% each year.
Celebrity interest in activewear and athleisure is one of the sportswear market’s most capable power sources. Rihanna’s 2016-2018 collaboration with Puma, the “Fenty x Puma” collection, influenced the growth of the athleisure movement in its early years. For Puma’s brand, her involvement is credited with catapulting its profits, including a 92% net income jump in early 2017. Similarly, Beyoncé’s “Ivy Park” debuted at Topshop in 2016 and is now in partnership with Adidas, whose doubled sales in the middle of a pandemic are, in part, credited to the recently launched “Icy Park,” a collection of lively, luxury winter wear. As with most markets, high fashion trends set by A-list celebrities, especially ones connected to today’s popular media, propel the trends Instagram influencers promote and customers shop for.
Activewear Industry Trends: Calls for Greater Inclusivity and Sustainability
The fashion industry has undergone a huge shift in perspective through the course of the past decade. Consumers have been demanding that brands, from high fashion to fast fashion, address and fulfill social concerns by reducing their carbon footprints, including more voices and faces that are systemically unheard and seen, and manufacturing apparel that a wider variety of people can wear. This is particularly true in the world of activewear and athleisure marketing. For example, Nike’s ad campaign “Until We All Win” focuses on the voices of Indigenous peoples, Allbirds describes themselves as “Light on the Planet” and actively aims to reduce climate change, and Lululemon’s “Strength to Be” ad campaign celebrates diversity within masculinity, redefining what it is to be a man.
Of course, the growth of the activewear and athleisure market means a widening market to people beyond athletes and the typical marketable icon. Consumers inherently want brands to provide apparel that they can wear and showcase on people who look like them. In the last decade, we’ve seen consumers push brands to include people of all different backgrounds as part of their clothing line and marketing material. Examples of inclusive clothing include Nike’s introduction of women’s Swim Hijab and modest swimwear line and Athleta’s extensive plus size and gender-neutral selection of clothes. The correlation between adaptable brands and greater reception is clear: recent industry trends and marketing surveys show that 44% of customers prefer brands that align with their values and produce body-positive ads.
But the push towards diversity does not stop in its product lines or visible marketing. In more recent years, consumer shifts have pushed activewear brands to reflect people in decision making capacities to look more like them. Among the biggest leaps to enable the celebration of diversity are Nike’s appointment of Felicia Mayo as talent chief and diversity and culture manager, and Puma’s Dietmar Knoess acknowledging they are working to diversify their staff.
Alternatively, brands that don’t examine their practices and dismiss the call to increase diversity are punished for it. In 2018, Victoria’s Secret’s revenue and reputation fell due to their disinterest in inclusivity—signaling very clearly that if a brand does not adapt to the ever evolving social atmosphere of diversity and equity, consumers will choose a competitor that does.
Activewear and athleisure brands are also answering the call to become more sustainable producers. The consumer behavior shift and market trends all point to brands adopting better ways to source material and reduce emissions in their production processes, with some brands making it known to consumers that their commitment to ensuring they leave the planet better before they inhabited holds up. And with climate change on more peoples' minds today than ever before, consumers are actively choosing who they give their dollars to.
Activewear Digital Strategies: eCommerce and Marketing Methods
To be and remain a top player in the activewear and athleisure space, a brand’s marketing must be as adaptive as their clothes, continually fitting the shifting shapes society takes. While most apparel companies struggled in 2020, those in this space that took advantage of the transformation in the average person’s lifestyle were able to redefine what it means to be a wellness-promoting brand. To connect to customers in an almost entirely remote environment, it is essential to be digitally accessible, attention-grabbing, and have an effortless user experience (UX) and user interface (UI). Already, activewear and athleisure brands were among the first in the apparel world to embrace digital channels and offer more experiences beyond shopping to consumers. But the true test of the future lies in a brand’s ability to capture and continually engage shoppers.
In the last few years, we’ve seen both upstarts and established enterprise brands tap into direct-to-consumer (DTC) business models to better connect with shoppers and respond to shifting consumer behaviors. When it comes to visibility, key industry insights show top activewear and athleisure brands have spent up to almost $4 billion on marketing in 2020, a significant portion of which is spent on social media. More than 1 billion people use Instagram each day. Of those, 81% use the app to research products and 50% have visited the website of a brand after visiting their Instagram page. Due to this immense traffic, all top activewear and athleisure brands have included Instagram in its marketing arsenal to showcase their collections on a small, digestible scale which, in turn, generates revenue and influence.
The Rising Importance UI/UX and eCommerce in Activewear Strategy
In an increasingly online world, activewear and athleisure brands must not begrudgingly settle merely for a digital browsing experience, but instead, take advantage of the surge in a digitally engaging connection. All market reports point to a demand for digital transformations, where content-rich product release pages, use of enthralling GIFs that retain a smooth user experience (UX) and user interface (UI), and hiring independent or freelance artists for unique graphics and homepage art are all acclaimed ways to enhance one’s impression of engaging with the brand by emphasizing the movement, flexibility, and creativity found in athletic apparel.
Seamless user experience and user interface is vital for eCommerce apps, which is why the most prominent top-performing brands like Nike and Lululemon have invested heavily in their mobile app development. Sustaining such influential and innovative brands requires app interfaces to be as enjoyable and effortless as possible so that the products and message can shine. On top of that, the theme most commonly found among activewear brands of the past year has been that of connectivity and togetherness—something that the most innovative companies have implemented as part of their overall digital strategy. Every brand in our Innovation Index has updated their app within the past month, ensuring that their eCommerce platform is up-to-date and that every shopper has a bug-free and intuitive user experience.
While the world is gradually resuming physical opportunities, the remote environment we have experienced for more than a year is far from vanishing. Experts believe the “new normal” by 2025 will be far more digital than what used to be so, described as a “tele-everything” world. This isn’t all bad for activewear and athleisure brands, whose fitting rooms and the experience of an in-person interaction with products were staples of their business. But the most proactive, best-performing, and relentlessly innovative brands, as we showcase below in our Activewear and Athleisure Industry Index and market report, are more prepared than ever to connect to their customer base of people at home or on the go with devices reliably equipped.
Ever since the sportswear giant announced its plan to grow digital sales to 30% of all brand revenues by 2023, Nike has consistently superseded competitors in the online realm. The push for native content, heavy investments in cultivating a sense of community, and enabling personalization in its shopping experience could not have arrived at a better time. Called its “Consumer Direct Offense,” the Nike digital strategy has been a work in progress, although it already has seen generous returns for the Oregon-based company.
Among the most innovative emblems of its strategy is integrating community engagement and shopping, which has amalgamated the social elements with that of commerce. In doing so, Nike has moved away from its traditional model of relying on retailers. The thought process behind this was to have better control of the customer experience (CX), where Nike manages every touchpoint of the shopping journey.
This direct-to-consumer (DTC) approach also means that Nike will be able to utilize customer data to identify user preferences and provide more relevant products. The longer Nike continues this approach of keeping customers closer to its network, the better their experiences will become.
2. Under Armour
Although not emphatically known for its digital strategy strength, Under Armour has displayed gravitas this year from its consumer-focused efforts. The company has made no secret of slumping sales and sought to revive them in a targeted campaign launch in early 2020. Initially taglined, “the only way is through,” Under Armour quickly revamped its theme to “through this together,” an aptly adjusted slogan when lockdowns became commonplace.
As a result, the strategy shifted towards helping consumers lead healthier lives in quarantine, with Under Armour’s fleet of apps well equipped to make that commitment possible. In April, Under Armour reported more than one million run records logged per day on its MapMyRun app and a boost in its digitally tethered by July. The brand has also ramped up plans to launch its new digital platform to meet demand with rising online sales.
Though Lululemon is credited for fusing the world of activewear and casual attire, it’s well worth noting the brand’s digital prowess and for its performance in the last year, especially. Lululemon needed no incentive to take eCommerce seriously. Several years into having invested in its online strategy, CEO Calvin McDonald has only further made it a priority in a December company earnings call.
Last year, the spring lockdowns set in motion a host of new digital offerings for the relatively young activewear brand. When the company announced it had acquired Mirror, talk of just how it would allow Lululemon to strengthen its omnichannel strategy, community, and customer relationships generated a buzz for potential use in its stores or how it could attract more people to the brand ecosystem. Whatever it may be, the addition of a scalable digital staple to its business model on top of an already solid online infrastructure cements the Canadian athleisure company as one of the most innovative brands in the space.
4. New Balance
Few brands have been nimble enough to put together a considerably comprehensive digital strategy in just a matter of weeks, much less amid a historic crisis. In what New Balance CEO Joe Preston called a product of 90-day sprints, the brand has responded to changes in consumer behavior that will be key to captivating interest and meeting their expectations.
No doubt, New Balance has made a significant improvement in its digital infrastructure. The pandemic push only further hastened the addition of new features that provided a new level of convenience and shopping agility for consumers. And with regard to thinking more proactively, New Balance is now looking to utilize predictive analytics to streamline its products and operations, eliminating excessive output and honing in on what consumers seem to want from the brand.
To say the pandemic offered an array of new opportunities to open a new chapter for New Balance is an acute understatement.
Adidas’ performance last year took a severe blow for a number of reasons. Pandemic-induced store closures and the postponement of the 2020 Olympic tournament in Tokyo and the 2020 UEFA Euro Championship games that Adidas had secured sponsorship deals undoubtedly soured what was hoped to have been a strong year for the brand.
Nonetheless, the initiation of the brand’s “Creating the New” strategy in 2015 served as a solid framework for Adidas’ digital standing into 2020. While the plan had only mapped its trajectory up until last year, much of the strategic initiatives allowed for Adidas to ease into relative stability amid widespread uncertainty. Chief among them was an objective towards speed. Adidas aimed to reduce production times and seasonal output while augmenting its eCommerce operations for a modernized and cohesive shopping experience.
But its digital commitment doesn’t stop there. The activewear brand plans to up its presentation game using more immersive showroom exhibits that allow customers to interact with a 3-D preview of an item. With ingenious novelties up Adidas’ sleeve, it’s no question this is a brand that will find no shortage of ways to engage consumers and succeed for the foreseeable future.
Famed for its sustainability initiatives, but most importantly, actions, Patagonia’s environmental endeavors alone merit it a place on any list of the most innovative and best-performing activewear brands. Since his announcement in 2002 over the establishment of One Percent for the Planet—a nonprofit for businesses to donate 1% of their revenues to environmental causes—Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has been a trailblazing figure in the world of corporate sustainability.
Amidst the onset of the pandemic, Chouinard penned a letter thanking participants of the organization for their steadfast commitment to the nonprofit’s mission despite the plaguing economic insecurity. When it comes to Patagonia specifically, environmental initiatives keep on coming. The Ventura-based outdoor clothing brand announced a four-part plan to be carbon neutral by 2025, including protecting public lands, scaling agriculture, and supporting the growing sustainable energy revolution.
What solidifies Patagonia’s worthiness on this index, though, is its dexterity to not only measure up to the overall sentiment towards preserving the earth’s natural beauty but connecting with their core audience in a way that few brands can match.
An online subscription retailer making the cut on the top-performing activewear list would probably have been a shock to most people when Fabletics was founded in 2013. But its ability to attract a growing customer base while capturing insightful data into what preferences and buying journeys say about its customers has undoubtedly made Fabletics a powerful player in the activewear circle.
Key to Fabletics’ year-on-year success is the brand’s market research survey, which paints an acute picture of their subscribers’ needs and allows for measurable benchmarks in progress. Perhaps one of Fabletics’ most admirable traits is its harmonious integration of the brick-and-mortar experience and online convenience for an exceptional example of omnichannel strategy done right. Any shopper is immediately immersed in a buying experience that perfectly complements the other. A transaction started on the mobile app can be fulfilled when visiting a Fabletics store in-person, where customers can view for size availability or check what style matching products are available in the very fitting room they’re in.
The brand’s Pinterest growth is also a solid piece of the success puzzle. The image-based platform has been a boon to Fabletics’ user-generated content and marketing machine, where posts inscribing the upstart’s logo are said to have converted up to 80% of ad recipients.
Another upstart that’s making waves, On is a footwear company striving to be a lifestyle brand. And as a product of the last decade, On has wholly embraced what consumers demand of companies today: sustainability and style.
Last fall, the Swiss-based brand unveiled a new renewable initiative. As part of its commitment to sustainable footwear, On has created a subscription-based model where customers send a used pair of their new Cyclon bio-based shoes in return for a fresh set for less than $30 a month. Although the service has yet to be launched (target is set for the second half of 2021), On has shown no signs of slowing down impressive growth.
Just last June, On had recorded the highest online sales figure in its history before getting another boost in November when prolific Grand Slam champion Roger Federer joined the company as an investor and design consultant. With a year full of highlights, it’s hard to imagine On stepping on the breaks anytime soon.
The Gap-owned brand was a silver lining in what was a stinging year for the group. In contrast to the fates of namesake Gap and Banana Republic stores, Athleta continues to shine through in the group’s portfolio and will serve as a prospect for even further business growth under the group’s retail strategy.
The most visible factor is Athleta’s plan to open between 20 to 30 new stores a year until 2023, where location will be prioritized in strip centers and away from outsized mall spaces. On top of that, Athleta had been flirting with new online experiences, with virtual styling now allowing customers to book a one-on-one online appointment in place of the in-store assistance removed from everyday pandemic life. But perhaps the most engaging example of Athleta’s prowess in the community sphere was its hosting of live, virtual events with fitness icon Megan Roup and Olympic champion Allyson Felix. Either way, the gem in Gap Inc.’s divisions certainly gives the retailer hope for a blooming future.
That Allbirds is unlike any other brand on this list goes without saying. The online DTC newcomer was born out of founder Tim Brown’s vision of stripping a shoe down to its simplest elements. And sure enough, its product lines show precisely that. With only three running shoe lines and fewer than ten colorways, Allbirds’ minimal production is a stark contrast to the far bigger and more established activewear retailers.
The most contrarian element about Allbirds, however, is the direction they’re headed in. Where most companies are taking their strides online to find more consumers and boost eCommerce share of the revenue pie, the digitally native brand is expanding its brick-and-mortar presence. By the end of 2021, the Allbirds expects to have 36 stores, up from 24 at the time of this writing.
But that’s not to say the footwear startup is neglecting its digital strengths. The brand continues to dominate with its organic search and paid traffic strategy for relevant key words, where much of the sneaker market remains highly saturated.
What went into selecting the top-performing activewear and athleisure brands of 2021?
For such a growing segment in the apparel industry, G & Co. pinpointed what key metrics best enabled activewear and athleisure brands to connect with consumers and offer the convenience of shopping with unparalleled ease. And although some of the most iconic brands in the sportswear world are definite contenders, the arrival of newcomers from digital fields showcases just how much the consumer trends have shifted for 2021 and beyond.
What does it mean for a top-performing activewear and athleisure brand to be recognized as such?
In 2021, a top-performing activewear and athleisure brand is a company that defines the customer experience (CX) as its primary focus. Among every single brand that we have indexed in our research, all paths to innovation stemmed from their consumer-centric foundation. It is a mark of distinction that shines a light on what actions a brand is doing that others can take and learn from. But most importantly, to be recognized as a top-performing brand in its space, an activewear and athleisure brand has demonstrated it is connecting with consumers and sparking new ways to show they care.
What was the motivation behind publishing this market and research report and selecting top-performing brands in the activewear and athleisure space?
For an industry that’s driven by trends and the fashion world, it’s imperative that brands keep up with the times. In a year defined by a once-in-a-lifetime combination of global shifts, executives and CMOs in the activewear and athleisure world must pause and reflect on their performance, evaluate the current status of their brand strategy playbooks, and assess whether those steps are the right direction for moving in a world that is unlike what it was just mere months ago.
This report was created with the intent to help industry leaders and executives understand where the market currently stands, what consumers want from activewear and athleisure brands, and what brands can do to ensure they meet the mark of the moment. Thanks to data gathered from CMO surveys, consumer behavior reports, and activewear industry analysis, we’ve been able to outline the current state of the activewear industry and share the key insights and lessons from the best brands in the space. In listing what we perceived to be the top ten brands in the activewear and athleisure industry, we have published this Innovation Index® to help companies understand the need to innovate and pursue consumer behavior.
What should CMOs and other c-level executives consider as part of their activewear and athleisure playbook moving forward?
CMO surveys, core research insight reports, and global fashion indexes done in the last few months point to a few key things: consumers want activewear and athleisure brands that put action behind words in sustainability efforts, enhance the shopping experience, and better connect with them in more relevant ways. In sum, consumers expect activewear and athleisure brands to personalize their approach and become role models for the industry.
If you’d like to learn more about what a comprehensive approach to your activewear and athleisure brand strategy looks like, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.