Nike unveiled new home jerseys for the U.S. Women's national soccer team on Wednesday. The new kit for the 2015 World Cup in Canada is white, with a black stripe down the side, in what Martin Lotti, global creative director for Nike soccer, calls a "clean, simple, and bold" design.
For the first time, Nike is selling the jerseys in men's sizes. Previously, the women's shirts, which include a pair of stars for the team's two World Cup victories, had been available only in women's and youth sizes. The men's star-less jerseys, meanwhile, were available in women's sizes. When I wrote about this double standard last fall, Nike offered a not very convincing rationale. As it turns out, the company was already at work on the new women's jerseys, planning to sell them in all sizes. "I can play to the audience and give you full credit for this," says Lotti, "but the reality was that I was chuckling at the time when I saw your article because we were thinking the same thing."
The change, however welcome among supporters of the women's team, will be all-but-invisible against the backdrop of Nike's $28 billion in annual sales. Yet it is emblematic of a larger shift in focus at Nike and other athletic apparel makers. After decades as an afterthought, women are now the drivers in the market. "The industry has under-served women for years," says Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD group, "Only in the last couple of years have we seen brands and retailers really starting to give women equal weight." The explosive growth of Lululemon, Powell says, helped demonstrate that a new kind of female customer was ready to spend. "When a brand can come out of nowhere and capture the kind of mindshare that they did, as quickly as they did," he says, "I think it woke everybody up."
After the wake-up call, Under Armour went in search of its feminine side and declared a "womanifesto," Foot Looker created a new line of stores for "performance-minded women," and Dick's Sporting Goods created a digital campaign for the same group. Nike, in particular, needs to close the gender gap in order to remain the growth company that Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker insists it is. Last year, women accounted for nearly $5 billion in sales, 21 percent of a total of $24 billion (not counting the global licensing business). Men's sales were $14 billion, or 59 percent of the total. The company is aiming to grow at 12 percent per year among women and reach $7 billion in sales by 2017. "There is still a lot of runway," says Chen Grazutis, an apparel and footwear analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. While the women's market may not attain full parity with the men's, Grazutis sees a 40/60 split as within reach.
To get there, Nike is paying closer attention to women's merchandise. The new U.S. women's World Cup kit comes in a $90 replica version for men and women and a $75 version for youth. There are also, for the first time, specially designed World Cup cleats (in lagoon blue and volt yellow) that range from $200 to $275.
The company just launched its largest ever ad campaign targeted at women, using the tagline "better for it." The first spot from the campaign features the inner monologues of young women in spin class, lifting weights at the gym, running, and doing yoga.
While the World Cup kit rollout very much resembles traditional Nike marketing, the ad campaign illustrates a distinct approach for women. The women in the first "better for it" spot are anonymous and full of self doubt. ("What am I even doing?") Compare that with, say, the self-parodying celebrity excess of the "Kobe System" campaign for men's basketball shoes in 2012:
"We definitely made a deliberate choice to focus on celebrating the everyday girl in her most honest state and natural state for this campaign, rather than focusing on professional athletes," wrote Nike spokesperson Charlie Brooks in an e-mail, "We felt it was important to recognize and capture the honest and open humor and pitfalls of leading an active life from an ‘everyday’ perspective."
For Powell, this choice is about recognizing generational and gender differences. The young women that brands covet, he says, "are really focused on healthy lifestyle and on sharing experiences with their friends," while men, especially among baby boomers and generation X, "seem to be more aspirational to emulate an athlete." Grazutis sees the approach as more practical, a matter of making use of what's available. "I think the aspirational part works for both genders," he says. Apparel makers, he notes, line up to market behind female stars such as Lindsey Vonn and Maria Sharapova whenever they can. "They just don’t have the same bench of women athletes." Under Armour turned to ballerina Misty Copeland and supermodel Gisele Bundchen for marketable female faces.
The World Cup this summer will provide a brief window in which female athletes move toward the forefront. Nike has a women’s soccer-specific campaign called "No Maybe’s" planned for the tournament. And as part of the "better for it" campaign, U.S. players Christen Press, Ali Krieger, and Carli Lloyd will be sharing their workout routines on the Nike+ training app. "We truly see this as a great opportunity for the women’s business," says Lotti. To break through beyond this summer, says Grazutis, the U.S. not only has to win but provide plenty of drama along the way. "Nike are going to try to push it as long as they can," he says, "but if there is not a good story behind it, it’s difficult."
Correction, 2:17 p.m. April 22: Corrects pricing information