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Giving Them Attitude

Activewear marketers find that lifestyle-oriented marketing strategies bridge the generations

NEW YORK — Rollerblading is for teenyboppers. Step classes are for Generation Xers. And golf is for the Geritol set.

Those formulas may work perfectly well for selling soft drinks, cereals or vacation packages. But as neat and tidy as such demographic labels and parameters are, marketing activewear just isn’t that easy.

According to manufacturers, sales success in the Nineties is more than a matter of pigeonholing a particular age group into a particular type of physical activity and providing it with uniforms to match. The key is a mix of multipurpose products and marketing strategies that takes into account the three main consumer age groups — Generation X (born 1961-1981), baby boomers (1946-1960) and the pushing 50-or-more crowd (1945 and before) — but puts its emphasis on lifestyle and attitude. What it all comes down to, say marketers, is clothes — and promotional campaigns — that are unequivocally “real.”

The focus on lifestyle in merchandising and advertising surfaced several years ago, when demand for womens’ sports apparel shifted away from single-purpose items toward pieces with more versatility. Three factors are credited for the move: the recession; the growing popularity of fitness and health, and stretch fabrics, especially Lycra spandex blends.

“We believe that over the past five to 10 years, fitness has really become a big part of women’s lifestyles, and fitness determines our consumer base,” said Anne Wiper, divisional merchandise manager of women’s apparel for Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike. Although comfort and fashion still counted, women were looking for pieces that could perform well during all kinds of athletic endeavors — from tennis and golf to running and weightlifting — and then go straight from the gym to the grocery store. “We offer simple, performance-oriented merchandise that is multifunctional,” said Deannie Janowitz, general marketing manager for Reebok, based in Stoughton, Mass.

“Multifunctional,” she notes, goes way beyond working out. “A girl can wear bike shorts to go out at night, and a woman can wear the same bike shorts with a cotton T-shirt to pick up the kids at school.”

These days, the cross-training category — activewear designed to perform through a range of different fitness activities — is the most rapidly expanding segment of women’s sports apparel, said manufacturers. While traditional bodywear remains the backbone of Nike’s women’s apparel business (Nike also makes clothes for tennis, golf, cycling and running), Wiper said cross-training apparel, a separate category introduced in spring 1993, is growing fastest, averaging 30 percent sales gains each season.

“The cross-training group has become very popular because it provides a ready-made fitness wardrobe at introductory prices,” explained Wiper. “It addresses the entry-level sports consumer, someone who is not entrenched in her sports. It poses no competition with the other categories.”

Janowitz noted that the fastest-growing category for Reebok is performance and fitness wear in general, especially in Lycra blends of nylon, Supplex nylon and microfiber nylon. Wind and warmup suits are also gaining popularity, and the company will expand assortments of sweat tops for fall 1995.

When it comes to image, activewear executives stressed that authenticity is a concept that goes hand-in-hand with the pragmatic, lifestyle-friendly philosophy of multipurpose workout gear. To date, the best formula has been to build advertising and promotional campaigns around “real” women — regardless of age — who are concerned about exercising for better health.

“We feel very strongly toward lifestyle, rather than targeting a Generation X or the ‘Fabulous Fifties,”‘ said Janowitz. From a philosophical viewpoint, Reebok merchandises and designs apparel that’s equally suitable for 15-year-olds and 45-year-olds, although Janowitz said the typical consumer is between 25 and 40. The age range of Nike’s female consumer base is slightly larger — 24 to 50, but Wiper noted, “We’ve never really marketed Nike women’s apparel from an age perspective, but rather through a psychographic profile, a mindset.”

Nike’s current print campaign spotlights women of all walks of life — celebrities, sports heroines, business executives and teachers. Wiper would not give Nike’s annual ad budget for women’s apparel, but said the firm has been “very aggressive” and funding has been consistent for the past several years.

“The point is they are all real women. It doesn’t matter how old they are — working out will make their lives better,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Jacques Moret, a firm that manufactures bodywear under the Jacques Moret and licensed LA Gear labels, said a recent hangtag survey of more than 200,000 responses revealed that the brands’ consumer following was in the 17-to-49 age range.

“Since the bodywear department itself is usually not marketed to a specific age group, we feel that this is an accurate demographic of our consumer,” she said.

The Moret spokeswoman added that the firm “stresses a lifestyle of fitness and feeling good about yourself and your body” as its theme for print ads in national magazines.

But for all the talk of not marketing to a specific age group, it’s hard to find a manufacturer who doesn’t do it to some extent. For instance, Moret places its bodywear ads in Self, Mademoiselle and Glamour, which are generally aimed at 20-to-35-year-olds.

At Nike, Wiper insisted that some products had a universal appeal, but admitted that others were positioned to attract specific age groups.

For example, warmup suits and jogsuits are generally purchased by female consumers in the 35-plus range, while bodywear is usually bought by women in their early 20s to mid-30s. “I hate to generalize, but the more sophisticated colors and prints are aimed at women who are a little older,” Wiper continued. “Our bright prints and colors are tailored for younger consumers.”

Overall, cycling wear and running wear are aimed at female consumers in their teens to late 20s, while manufacturers expect tennis apparel to get a boost from a new crop of female tennis stars who represent Generation X. For most companies, including Nike, golf wear continues to be a conservative market that’s made up mainly of consumers over 45.

While baby boomers are the main sector targeted by the Amerex Outdoors division of Amerex Inc., the division’s president, Dick Holcombe, said price — not age — is the crucial issue.

“We’re creating a national brand with our Trail Designs line,” said Holcombe. “The line offers a very good markup for specialty sports stores and sporting goods stores, and allows them to compete with The Gap or Lands’ End,” said Holcombe. “The key issue we’re seeing is that there is a greater need for price points that allow retailers to make their keystone.”

The women’s line of outdoor apparel under the Trail Designs label was introduced in February. Wholesale prices start at $6.50 for a cotton jersey T-shirt and go to $22.50 for cotton knit sweaters. Outerwear wholesales from $29.50 for a wool parka shell to $62.50 for wool-lined parkas.

Nonetheless, Holcombe said a co-op TV ad campaign to be launched this fall will show women in the baby boomer range. The ad is being taped in black and white with a handheld home video camera and has background music Holcombe described as “very Sixties — bongo music with a Santana flavor.”

Generation X is in Amerex’s mix, too. Holcombe noted that several updated prints and seven new brighter colors would be added in the spring. The objective: a broader consumer base of women in their 20s. Indeed, it’s the elusive Generation X that seems to be the most difficult to reach — and most frequently discussed. Activewear executives said twentysomethings tend to be “skeptical” and look for validity of product and advertising.

“You really can’t market to Generation X — you have to be real, and be in a position of authenticity,” said Nike’s Wiper. “Our approach to women is that we want them to be healthier by working out, and we feel we can be a lot more effective that way.”

Nike has recently begun cultivating a younger, more hip following for its women’s tennis apparel with sporty-looking T-shirts and cotton knit tops with cap sleeves.

“We’ve been addressing the younger consumer because of the influence of the young, up-and-coming tennis stars,” she said. Mary Anne Domuracki, president of Danskin Inc., observed, “It’s very difficult to market to Generation X, because their lifestyles are so varied and they have so many different needs.”

Domuracki broke it down geographically, describing the “fast lifestyles” of the West Coast, the “sophistication” of big cities and the “very conservative” attitudes of the Midwest and mid-Southern states.

Danskin’s long history has given it an established base of consumers over 30, but Domuracki emphasized that the company is “very focused on what consumers in the 20-to-30 age range are doing, and what are the most upwardly trending sports segments.” She said walking is the most popular — and fastest-growing — fitness regime, followed by hiking. “A woman who used to go to the gym five times a week now goes two or three times and supplements the indoor workout with an outdoor workout twice a week,” said Domuracki.

Interestingly, walking is also the most popular sport with women over 50, she said.

“I think everybody groups the 50-and-older set together,” said Domuracki. “They’re active, but not as much as they used to be. That’s where the casual walker comes in — not for endurance, but for health.”

But contrary to conventional wisdom, Domuracki believes there is growth potential in golf wear aimed at younger consumers. “I’m a golfer,” said Domuracki, who qualifies as a baby boomer, “and many women like me want to wear golf shorts and a top — not an old-looking golf skirt.”