NEW YORK — Like a college football player trying to catch the eye of a pro scout, activewear makers are working hard to stand out in a crowded field.

For the most part, the $16.2 billion retail activewear market is generated by sports bras, workout pants and other basics. But brands are investing heavily in distinguishing their products and image from the competition.

Alden Sheets, president of worldwide apparel for Puma North America, said, "Every brand is trying really hard to find its niche. It’s a tough time and consumers are really fickle. The question is, can they stay focused and stay there to weather the storm, if it’s not successful right away?"

For Puma, that means pitching the "sport lifestyle," as evidenced by Serena Williams’ body-hugging catsuit at this summer’s U.S. Open, an athletic number that triggered a hefty dose of publicity. The company tries to keep a pulse on teenagers by using a British market research firm that quizzes Gen-Yers in major cities in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Italy. Puma’s advertising agency, Gyro, a Philadelphia-based company, also keeps an ear to the ground for the brand, clueing it into publications like Lucky and Jane.

"Our company’s small size allows us to move in and out of things quickly," Sheets said.

Nike, on the other hand, prides itself in its "fabrication, technology and innovation," as seen in Dri Fit, Therma Fit, Clima Fit, and Sphere apparel, said Robin Shepard, product line manager for women’s training. Sphere was launched in July and is more textured for greater visual appeal.

"What Nike has a knack for doing is taking influence from athletes, whether they’re running or taking a Pilates class, to infuse a sense of style and trend,"Shepard said. "Women wear product more than just in the gym. We try to think, what is her wearing occasion?"

Burton sees its point of a difference more clearly. Ryan Coalter, creative director for marketing, said, "Our commitment to snowboarding is for real, driven by a lifelong passion to have fun in the snow. We are all here because we love snowboarding, and Burton, as a corporation, is an extension of that culture. It’s less like work and more like life, and that comes through in everything we do."To accomplish that, amateur and elite snowboarders play an integral role in the development of all products.

Everlast’s longevity — the brand has been around since 1910 — helps distinguish it from others in the field, said George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer. Its popularity with athletes and entertainers has also bolstered brand awareness, he added.

Everlast also has "the funny combination" of being an aspirational brand for women, even though it serves a predominantly male sport, said Hal Worsham, senior vice president of global licensing. Earlier this year, Everlast teamed up with Agnès B. to develop an athletic-inspired collection called B. Everlast.

Reebok aims to distinguish itself by playing up its heritage. Just as the brand catered to women’s footwear needs during the aerobics boom in the Eighties, it is determined to provide apparel women need and might not know they need, as opposed to telling them what they need, said Jan Sharkansky, vice president and general manager of women’s. A former Prada executive, she joined Reebok last year and reflects the brand’s renewed interest in the fusion of fashion.

"We have incredible longevity through our classics business and we are modernizing it," Sharkansky said.

As part of Shakira’s new endorsement deal with the Canton, Mass.-based company, she will plug Reebok Classics’ updated versions of best-sellers from past decades.

Adidas sees its three divisions, Sport Performance for performance-oriented looks, Sport Heritage for oldschool styles and Sport Style for more fashion-conscious sports fans, as what sets it apart from others. Yohji Yamamoto designs the latter.

An Adiddas spokeswoman said, "We are a leader in the industry in creating innovation in our products, while never losing sight of the athletes we create them for. ‘Forever Sport’ is more than a tagline for Adidas, it is our competitive difference."

Rockport is redeveloping its XCS label, which stands for Cross Conditions System, to ensure that every item has sensibility, said Stefanie Lucas, vice president of marketing.

"We are first a footwear brand and we want to bring that same philosophy, science and style to our clothing.XCS is designed to have "a point of difference," such as pockets large enough to stash airline tickets or passports, moisture-management tops and water-resistant sweaters. Those types of finishing touches have helped to develop a two-fold customer base: younger ones who favor more performance-oriented pieces and consumers who are more fond of XCS for traveling.

Susan Davidson, president of DKNY Jeans, Active & Juniors, said of the brand’s athletic-inspired component, "DKNY Active is an active collection with a designer point of view. There aren’t many active brands out there which are fashion driven, but still functional."

Norm Zwail, president and ceo of The Weekend Exercise Co., said, "In the fitness world, it’s our crossover into fashion that sets us apart. We know we can’t compete with a lot of shoe companies’ technical merit or just their names. We always look to tweak the fashion."

Having just wrapped up two days of focus groups with Moving Comfort consumers, Ellen Wessel, president and ceo, said of her brand, "There’s a personal connection our customer feels with the product. There’s an emotional loyalty based on the fact it fits and does what it says it will do. We asked them questions like, ‘If this was a relationship, what would it be?’ and ‘best friend’ and ‘sister’ were some of the responses we heard again and again."

The Answer Is

Activewear executives served up some not-so-well-known facts about their brands. Here, a pop quiz. True or False?

1. Reebok’s heritage dates back to a company that started making track spikes in 1895.

2. Puma was flooded with e-mail from plus-size women after Serena Williams wore her catsuit at the U.S. Open.

3. Moving Comfort’s co-founders left the company years ago.

4. Nike’s research and development for apparel is not as extensive as it is for its footwear.

5. Everlast has been making all its professional boxing equipment in the Bronx since 1895.

6. Rockport is not owned by Reebok.

7. Many women own Marika garments and don’t realize it.

Answers: 1. True; 2. True; 3. False; 4. False; 5. True;

6. False; 7. True

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