Serena Williams

Serena Williams made headlines in April 2017 not only for winning the Australian Open — her 23rd Grand Slam — but for winning it during the first trimester of her pregnancy. That same year Alysia Montaño, who had run in the 2014 USA Track and Field Championship when she was eight months pregnant, ran the event again — this time a mere five months into her pregnancy. A year later, 40-year-old Swedish obstacle-course racing champion Anna-Lee Markstedt made headlines of her own literally cartwheeling into the delivery room before giving birth to her second child; five months post-delivery she finished fourth in a world championship obstacle race.

But there weren’t any headlines for the hundreds of thousands of pregnant women and new mothers who were trying to incorporate or maintain an exercise regimen in their daily routines. Not only were the headlines missing, it turns out — so was the maternity workout clothing designed to make those routines comfortable.

Whether they’re professional athletes or not, women know something that has not been satisfactorily addressed by a long list of major athletic apparel companies. The idea of pregnancy as a “delicate condition” has been replaced by a new model of pregnancy as another stage of wellness, led by mothers-to-be who know that staying in top physical shape is in everyone’s best interest — theirs as well as their baby’s — during pregnancy and the post-partum period.

Active women need activewear. While major athletic apparel brands have increased their focus on women, they have not addressed this all-important phase in their female customers’ lifecycles.

Great Expectations… As Long As You Aren’t Actually Expecting

Find this hard to believe? Just go to America’s top athletic wear companies’ web sites, type “Maternity” into the search box, and see what happens. We did, receiving answers ranging from “Maternity” returned no results, so we are showing you results for ‘Materials’ instead” to “Maternity (0), WE’RE SORRY.” Similar responses were found on nine of the top 10 apparel makers’ sites. The only exception was DKS, whose message read: “Though we don’t carry maternity apparel, we carry activewear designed to fit any body, including yours. Check out our selection of stylish and trendy apparel that will flatter your figure — making you feel confident and comfortable.”

An Evolving Conversation and a Badly Missed Opportunity

This kind of messaging carries the unintended consequence of alienating new mothers and mothers-to-be — especially those of Millennial and Gen Z age, who expect the brands they support to be values-driven and prepared to meet their needs at every stage of their lives. This emerging consumer truism is particularly valid at critical stages, including maternity and beyond, where expectations drive low-volume SKU rationalizations at the expense of lifetime customer value and brand loyalty. To turn things around, athletic wear brands need new strategies and new designs, whether created in-house or through strategic partnerships, that reflect the needs of real consumers. This failure to engage is amplified at times when mothers or mothers-to-be shop for athletic wear and seek out peer and community advice on baby and personal-care items.

Birthrate data from 2017 shows that about 3.5 to 4 million Americans are pregnant in any given year — translating to 6.5 percent of the critical 18-to-44-year-old female demographic that apparel companies target. Postpartum women in the U.S. represent around another 2 million annually. Globally, the 2019 maternity market is estimated at about $7 billion, with an expected CAGR pegged at 2.1 percent from 2019 through 2023.

With all the data-based research being done today, it’s amazing that no one has bothered to track the size of the maternity-related athletic wear market. But here it is: in 2018, global maternity wear sales were worth $2.2 billion in North America, $1.5 billion in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) nations, $1.6 billion in Europe, $0.5 billion in Latin America, and $0.8 billion in the Middle East and Africa.

It’s no surprise, then, that indie and fast-fashion brands such as Leo & I, Bao Bei Maternity, and Cake Maternity are taking advantage of the opportunity to capture athletic maternity sales and build lifetime consumer loyalty.

Getting Over the Bump in the Marketing Road

There are three good reasons major athletic apparel brands should aggressively market to women who are either pregnant, considering a pregnancy, or have recently given birth.

First, it allows brands to show a deeper understanding of what matters to their female consumers, simultaneously driving improved brand perception and engagement and stopping current customers from experimenting with other brands.

Second, it lets consumers engage with their preferred brands at life stages that really matter, deepening brand affinity and providing a sense of emotional connection at a time of great change.

And, third, it’s just good business.

Major athletic brands are in a prime position to tap into this large and highly connected consumer community using methods from direct apparel sales to education to working with female consumers on product design and testing. However, manufacturers aren’t the only ones overlooking this opportunity; retailers could also do a better job serving pregnant and post-partum women. Why shouldn’t retailers consider developing their own line of retailer-controlled maternal and nursing-friendly products? They could feature existing popular products that can be adapted for maternity — such as wider shirts, soft fits, stretch pants, etc.

And while they’re at it, why not partner with maternity-friendly brands on new products, or form pure partnerships featuring maternity brands?

It’s long past time for a change.

Supported by emerging medical research, cultural trends, elite athlete influencers, and public interest in physical fitness as a critical element of healthier maternity and post-partum health, sports brands are uniquely positioned to help shatter existing stigmas surrounding motherhood and advance the conversation around pregnancy and health.

This means doing more than just introducing a few maternity and nursing-friendly items. They can start by taking a good, hard look at how traditional SKU management and a lack of strategy around pregnant and post-partum consumers has impacted sales.

There is also a timeline to consider: depending on the individual, each pregnancy and post-partum period can involve nine to 15 months, or more, of a woman’s life. Some marketers see this as too short a window, hoping customers will return to them once they are back to their “normal” routines. What they conveniently forget is that for women, pregnancy is one of the first steps of a normal lifetime journey. It would behoove them to remember that success depends on supporting all bodies in all the moments that matter.

Nora Kleinewillinghoefer is a principal in the consumer practice of Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm, where she focuses on apparel and lifestyle brands. She can be reached at

Editor’s Note:

Effective Jan. 10, 2020, and as part of a re-brand, A.T. Kearney is now known as “Kearney.” The global management consulting firm said the change “emphasizes the humanity that clients, colleagues and alumni value most in the firm” and noted the re-brand “reflects the firm’s emphasis on community and collaboration.”


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