Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — It’s not easy being cool.
Teens can attest to that, and athletic companies would agree.
Not about to let the influential teenage market escape their reach, activewear makers are trying to shake their traditional images to show some ingenuity. Companies are serving up unusual products and cheeky advertising to try to show teens they’re not their parents’ brand.
In July, Nike is sponsoring YM magazine’s summer kickoff concert outside of San Francisco and will stage a fashion show during the event. Through a sweepstakes with Journeys, a specialty chain, teens are being asked to define what moves them to try to win the chance to be backstage reporters for YM at the event.
Nike is also teaming up with Seventeen magazine for another promotion that encourages teens to define friendship.
The sneaker giant has joined forces with Polaroid to develop Nike Runamok Pic sneakers to try to increase their cool factor with teens. Wearers can display their favorite photos — shot with a Polaroid i-Zone instant pocket camera — by placing the image in a clear plastic window on the top of each shoe. Unlike standard-size photos, i-Zone produces stamp-size shots.
Runamok Pic shoes are aimed at girls age 12-17 — Polaroid’s largest customer base for the i-Zone.
The collaboration is in line with Polaroid’s commitment to building the i-Zone franchise with products that meet teens changing tastes, according to Xanthe Samaras, divisional vice president of marketing for Polaroid.
In the past six months, Danskin has been going after the teen market by revving up its offerings for cheerleaders. National Spirit Group, the leading distributor of cheerleading uniforms, is now one of Danskin’s top five accounts across all categories, said Joyce Darkey, senior vice president for marketing.
The brand recently started advertising in American Cheerleader Junior Magazine and also plans to run ads in Junior Cheerleader, a new magazine aimed at girls age 9-13.
Highlighting the scope of the cheerleading market, Darkey said that for every one girl that is picked for a cheerleading team, six others are rejected. In addition, cheerleading teams generally buy new uniforms each year, she said. Outfitting cheerleaders is also another way to reintroduce the teenager’s mother to the brand.
Danskin also wanted to sponsor “Blast,” a new Broadway musical about cheerleading and drill squads, but Tommy Hilfiger already signed on as the title sponsor, Darkey said.
Other firms are going after a different breed of fitness enthusiasts. While big name pro athletes no longer carry the clout with kids that they once did, alternative athletes still sway teens with the brands they endorse.
Sandra Roffi, product marketing manager for Bonfire, a snowboarding label produced by Adidas-Salomon, described teenagers as “fickle, furious and they go against every norm we could imagine.” But as much as alternative sports enthusiasts want to go against the grain, they wind up buying brands endorsed by their favorite riders.
A former buyer for Blades Board & Skate, a chain that caters to alternative athletes, Roffi said she has seen firsthand how demand for a brand will shift, as soon as a rider switches labels.
The fact that Minna Hesso, a Bonfire-sponsored pipe rider, suits up in the brand’s GT Series, has helped make it popular with teens, Roffi said. More progressive than Bonfire’s other groups, GT uses bolder colors, color blocking and stripes. A red jacket, which is generally off limits for snowboarders due to its popularity with skiers, has been received “phenomenally well,” Roffi said.
With an average retail price for a jacket of $270, GT is priced lower than the brand’s top-tier offerings, but has the same features. The price is right for riders age 14-16, who are driving the sport, Roffi said.
Items in Bonfire’s new Metro line, a streetwear group geared for snowboarders to wear off the mountain, is expected to be a hit with teens. Down jackets and four-way stretch jackets should attract more teens, Roffi said.
Rollerblade and Nordica, two brands produced by Benetton Sportsystem, are also counting on elite riders, like aggressive in-line skater Fabio DaSilva and extreme skier Aleisha Cline, a new recruit, to give the brand more clout with young consumers.
“Our market research shows that youth really idolizes athletes, but not so much those in regular sports,” a Benetton spokesman said. “Aggressive sports have a cult-like following with teenagers and younger kids.”
Some say the finesse needed in alternative sports is what makes teenagers tune in.
Reebok expects the rollout of its core board workout and its new “Defy Convention” ad campaign to be “very exciting for younger people,” according to Jay Margolis, group president over specialty brands. Reebok’s network of 65,000 aerobic instructors are learning how to teach the basic board workout, which involves balancing on a board while doing exercises.
More playful than previous Reebok campaigns, one “Defy Convention” spot shows tennis star Venus Williams acting like a diva, while another features elephants playing soccer.
Reebok has also taken its branding strategy into new territory with Reebok fitness water. Through a licensing deal with Clearly Canadian, Reebok is now pitching bottled water with nutritional benefits in traditional food, drug and convenience stores, as well as fitness clubs, golf courses and beaches.
Equinox is pulling in more teenagers to its club in Scarsdale, N.Y., with after-school and weekend exercise programs geared for them. Interest has been so strong that the health club chain is “seriously considering” introducing the program to members’ offspring in its city clubs, according to Carol Espel, exercise physiologist.
“Our members kept asking when we were going to do something for teens,” she said. “Physical education programs are practically nonexistent unless a kid plays sports. It seems that kids are aching for something to do.”
Diva Dance, a nonstop dance class inspired by MTV and jazz, is one of the most popular classes, and teen yoga is expected to be a hit once it is introduced this summer. Interestingly, one-on-one, sport-specific training is a hit with serious-minded athletes and nonathletic types who are trying to get into a sport without the pressure of a group activity, Espel said.
As for after class, they do what many kids do — they shop at the club’s Energywear store.