If you haven’t noticed, there is a shift occurring in the athletic industry. 63% of Millennials participate in moderate fitness activity, yet the top brands keep pushing elite sports icons and hardcore performance onto the consumer. The truly performance-oriented consumer only comprises 13.5% of this generation. We believe that the 63% of millennials (53 million) who mainly do physical activity for fitness have different values than the current attitude of the athletic industry and are greatly underserved.
This results in customers who want multi functional products, meaning that they meet basic performance attributes yet are stylish enough to wear out. Essentially, customers want one shoe to meet all of their daily requirements. The new value metric is versatility. The demand for such products is high yet brands have not yet fully adopted this trend.
A Look At The Past
To fully understand the demand for versatile product, we must first look back into the past and understand millennials relationship with sports and how their values are fundamentally different than the last several generations.
The Chuck Taylor, the primary athletic shoe during the 1950s and ‘60s represents the nature of the millennial mindset today and the values instilled in products. The Chuck, was the iconic shoe that everyone wanted to wear, because it was highly versatile and emphasized utility -- a clear representation of the post-war American mindset.
Sports in this era were all about enjoyment, engaging with friends, and having fun. It was about active participation, rather than being a career goal.
Then something changed. The 1970s and ‘80s saw an explosion of performance footwear, with Nike quickly becoming a dominant brand. Shoes were designed to enhance an athlete's performance in a particular sport, creating specialized product. Sports, which were previously viewed as leisurely activities, gained mainstream appeal as a culturally significant cornerstone of society. All of a sudden, sports defined America.
The 1990s and 2000s marked the peak of sports in America. Sport icons became super stars. Brands marketed these elite athletes as super heroes, larger-than-life figures who were idolized by fans. This was a time when celebrities were famous for the sake of celebrity alone, and a fantasy culture was perpetuated through new digital media channels.
The aspiration to be a million-dollar athlete heavily influenced the young Millennial generation. Team sports became a job, with parents buying into their aspirational goals and unconsciously imposing them on their children.
To become an athlete, Millennials had to be fully dedicated to a single sport. Year-long training and extended seasons did not allow for anything else. There was little time for variety or diversity. While many participated in organized sports as young children, by the 6th grade most kids were pressured to pick a single sport. Due to the extreme competition and restrictive nature of team sports, there has been a 10-30% decrease in high school team sports programs over the last decade .
The natural backlash that resulted from extreme intensity in organized sports ran deep. Over the last 15 years, team sport participation has steadily declined as fitness-centric participation has drastically increased. The Millennial generation isn’t interested in the pressure and expectations associated with professional sports. They have seen through the advertising and the hype, realizing that they are merely being sold a false dream.
What has emerged now is a generation that wants to engage with their friends and share experiences together. Millennials live a digital and active lifestyle. They desire a variety of experiences and are all about having fun. When compared to previous generations, they share more similar values of those from the 1950s and 60s when sports were fun, when it was about engaging with others, rather than besting them.
This circulation of trends is prevalent throughout American history. New generations tend to reject their parents’ generation, their values and what was imposed onto them. This has caused millennials to seek diversification and are attracted to products that reflect these values.
Making Versatile Product
When designing products it is important to remember that a baseline of performance must be retained. Cushioning, weight, traction, and fit standards must be retained, otherwise there is a risk of losing confidence in the consumer. For example, an athleisure focused product with inspiration from running, must retain a its functional characteristics associated with running. Seems obvious but there are plenty of products out there that don’t meet this criteria and is a major shortfall for their brand.
The consumer’s expectations are to have a product that they can wear all day. This means to the gym, to work, on a hike, and out for dinner. The real trick is in applying styling cues in a manner that creates a product that is distinctive and recognizable in the absence of strong branding, yet recognizable as a product that is coming from your brand. This can be achieved through a dedicated product story, whether it is in the material used, a specific silhouette shared through several categories, similar midsole styling, a distinctive lacing system or a subtle design attribute shared among all products.
An obvious example of this being successfully implemented is with adidas’s Boost line of product. Due to the unique visual appearance of this midsole material, consumers can quickly identify that it’s part of the adidas brand even in the absence of logos. In fact, the adidas brand increased revenue by 22% last year (2016) with the company attributing much of their success to their Boost technology. Infact 60% of this growth was from sales of the Adidas Originals and Adidas Running shoes, which feature their new cushioning material.
As customers values shift from being specialist to generalist, desiring a diversity of experience as opposed to proficiency in a single activity, the characteristics of future products will also change with this shift. We have already seen this trend succeed in adidas’s new lifestyle focused products as well as in some smaller brands like Allbirds, who exploded to $7million in sales in just one year. Products which contain versatile attributes are taking the industry by storm, yet few brands have fully actualized this trend.
What customers want is a platform, that provides versatility, performance, style, and most importantly, value.