LONDON — Speedo’s marketing always has favored people over product and credibility over hype.

For this company, advertising means training the world’s future water sport champions and dressing those who have already made it.

“Traditionally, Speedo has never really invested in advertising per se, but in sports marketing and sponsorship,” said Paul Phedon, marketing director of Speedo International. “Since its inception, it’s been about working at the grassroots level, from the sponsorship of learning to swim and lifesaving programs to dressing Olympic athletes.”

Speedo designs and supplies suits for different swimming federations and teams around the world, including the U.S., Australia and South Africa.

A major turning point in the brand’s history occurred in 1956, when the company dressed the Australian team for the Olympic Games in Melbourne. Within a week, the Australians had swept eight gold medals and boosted Speedo’s profile worldwide.

Since its dominance in Melbourne, Speedo has suited up many Olympic medalists. Most recently, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, 83 percent of all swimming medals were won in Speedo, and at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, last year, 87 percent of all medals were won in Speedo suits.

Olympic swimmers Jenny Thompson, Janet Evans and Summer Sanders are among the athletes who still have endorsement deals with the company. They periodically do autograph signings, host swim clinics and speak on behalf of the company.

Thompson, the most decorated female American Olympian, said, “To me, Speedo symbolizes the ultimate in bathing suits and I think most Americans would agree. Most people I know refer to their bathing suit as their Speedo.”

Thompson’s preference for Speedo is something that resonates with impressionable younger swimmers who routinely buy the same brands as their role models.

“Speedo’s consistent endorsement of top athletes is their billboard for the brand,” said Rick Leto, executive vice president of merchandising at Kohl’s, who has worked with Speedo since 1979. “People’s perception of the brand is that it’s superior and authentic. You feel like you’re wearing real swimwear. It’s like when a guy puts on Nike sneakers — it doesn’t matter how fast he can run. He’s wearing the real thing.”The company continues to use its trusted sponsorship strategies in markets where it still has to build a presence. In Italy, Speedo sponsors the Neapolitan swimmer, Max Rosolino, known as the Italian kangaroo for his speed and his victories in Australia.

“We focus on the best swimmers in each market, and that trickles down to teams, schools, clubs,” said Andy Rubin, chief executive officer of Pentland, which owns Speedo. “Rosolino has become an icon for the brand and that gives us credibility within the Italian swimming world. Now we’re seen as a new, hot brand.”

That investment in top-tier athletes works both ways for the Speedo design team, said Rubin.

“There’s this crescendo for us every four years at the Olympics and when we see our athletes win, there is this halo effect for the brand and the Speedo team that lasts until the next Games,” he said.

Speedo’s marketing strategy also is intertwined with fabric development. Sponsored athletes help the brand with product development and wear-testing. Initially, that meant trying to shave off seconds from swimmers’ times. Now it reaches beyond that — from making nontransparent fabrics to ones that sculpt the body.

In 1992, Speedo launched S2000, what was then the world’s first ‘fast swimwear’ fabric (see related story, page 30). Eight years later, it introduced Fastskin, a suit with fabric that resembles the ridges on a shark’s skin, at the Fina World Swimming Championships. Swimmers from more than 130 countries sported the suit at The Sydney Games and, as a result, 13 out of the 15 world records were broken by Fastskin-clad swimmers. The buzz about the suit spread quickly and triggered awareness in and outside the sports world.

“It’s all about developing rational brand values,” said Phedon. “We want the public to see top swimmers wearing Speedo — and winning in it.” Phedon refers to the strategy as “emotional communication.”

Phedon said Speedo’s advertising in magazines and on billboards usually appears in “bits and pieces,” and isn’t the company’s major focus. He added that Speedo reinvests “a healthy double-digit” percentage of its $500 million in wholesale volume annually in advertising.Most recently, in a move away from the pool and more toward the waves, Speedo has begun to sponsor such sports and sectors as beach volleyball, wakeboarding, surfing and surf lifesaving.

“This brand was originally about the beach and swimming, and Australia,” said Phedon. “It was a logical step.”

For three years in a row, Speedo has sponsored the beach volleyball world tour. “There’s such a spirit and emotion associated with beach volleyball — it’s a great atmosphere for us,” he added.

Speedo also is applying its strategy of high-profile athlete sponsorships to extreme, beach-related sports. Earlier this year, it took on Louise Moore, Europe’s top wakeboarder.

Wakeboarding began in the 1990s and is based on a combination of waterskiing, snowboarding, skating and skiing. Wakeboarders — known as riders — balance themselves on a lightweight board and are towed by a speedboat. They perform tricks using launch ramps and the wake waves created by the speedboat.

Speedo’s two-year sponsorship deal with the 23-year-old Moore will run until December 2004. Moore will wear a Speedo logo on her wetsuit and branding on her board for all competitions. She also will take part in Speedo’s ad campaigns and publicity during the period.

On the men’s wear side, Speedo has joined forces with the South African surfer, Andrew Carter, to create a small surf line as part of the company’s Beach Life range. Why Carter? This is the man who, in the early Nineties, was attacked and bitten by a shark. He survived because when the shark came to take a second bite out of his leg, he jammed the board into the fish’s mouth. The board shorts from the line bear a logo with the measurements of Carter’s life-saving surfboard.

Phedon said the overall strategy now is to convey Speedo’s new image to a wider audience. He said, “We want to put Speedo on the map for beach- and fashionwear.”

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