New game. New rules. New players.

Beto Almeida

You wake up in the morning, choose a comfortable outfit, and put on your brand new pair of sneakers. It seems like you’re going to the gym to work out, but in fact, you’re going to work. It’s meeting after meeting at the office, then maybe out to the nightclub: but you’re ready—because wearing sports attire has long ceased to be synonymous with sports practice.

This cultural revolution has transformed an entire industry. What was once considered a breach of etiquette, an act of rebellion, became embraced during casual Fridays, which have since evolved into casual every day, casual everywhere. Case in point: only 25% of the American public buys sneakers for their intended athletic use, according to market-research firm The NPD Group.

In this new and constantly changing environment, there are new players, new materials, new technologies, and new demand: exclusive designs can be sold out in a couple of hours, all over the world.

The biggest secret to growth is actually not a big secret at all. Brand managers must venture beyond big data and go hit the streets, so they can fully understand what’s going on in the real world with real people, reflecting their ambitions and desires. It’s the only way to learn their language, and interact with honesty and relevance.

From object of desire to experience of desire

In the Age of You, traditional marketing disciplines are dead. It’s experiences built around the brand that will help sustain connections with customers. Consider the sneaker cults, which have been around for decades.

Who hasn’t worshiped a pair of the everlasting Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high tops, with its famous star stamped on the heels? More than a sneaker, Chucks became a symbol of freedom, personality, and belonging to a tribe that holds these things in high regard. The first mass-produced sneaker in the world, it celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

The global athletic footwear market is expected to reach USD $84.4 billion in 2018, which puts new players toe-to-toe with industry giants. Sneaker cults have become so huge that there are countless specialized websites focused on covering new launches, new technologies, events, and collections. This has also given rise to a parallel economy of vintage models like the Nike Air Jordan 1, adidas Stan Smith, New Balance 574, Reebok Pump, ASICS Onitsuka Tiger, authentic Vans, PUMA State, and more, which can be worth thousands of dollars in online auctions.

This evolution of the traditional sports shoe into an object of desire prefaces a growing trend. Today, the line between sporting goods and fashion brands is thinner than ever before. Gucci, LANVIN, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Christian Louboutin, and many other haute couture brands are moving in on the sportswear category. Which means traditional sports companies have to develop new brand-led strategies in order to differentiate. The German adidas struck back by partnering with influencers across regions. Its collaboration with musician/entrepreneur Pharrell Williams, for example, has sparked lines around the world for its unique fast-fashion creations.

It’s these real-time experiences, shared through social media and powered by consumers, that are transforming the way sports brands are built and maintained.

High-tech and human-centric

Smartphones, smartwatches, smartsports! This revolution has spawned a gigantic industry of apps to track your health and activity levels—making many people want to get up from the couch and begin training regimens, or at least start by counting steps, calories, etc.

Whether it’s through real-time feedback, the ability to track your performance over time, or the simple fact that you can share your workout on social media (maybe the most attractive feature for most), apps like Fitbit, Strava, Yoga Studio, and Argus have been competing on equal terms with giants such as Johnson & Johnson’s Official 7 Minute Workout and the famous Nike+ Training Club.

It’s this truly personal touch, enabled by technology, that keeps sports brands ahead of customer needs. Why settle for sizes, for example, when you can wear a pair of sneakers tailored to the shape of your feet? United Nude and Feetz make it as simple as picking up your smartphone, taking a couple of foot selfies, and pressing print! 

The challenge for sports giants, such as Under Armour, Nike, New Balance, and adidas, is to produce personalized products at scale. In this marathon race, brands will look to team up with the holders of 3D print technology that have been drawing attention from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. Adidas is already on the ball, using Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis to design and directly produce customizable athletic shoes that incorporate athlete data.

The World Cup for brands

While luxury brands have already become regular players in the sports-marketing arena, genuine sports brands have also begun to profit by breaking into new segments themselves.

Take a look at Juventus, which recently broke new ground by launching its “Black and White and More” brand strategy, to engage new consumers who aren’t necessarily die-hard football fans. Understanding its brand elasticity, Juventus embraced a new brand purpose that resonates with a broader audience. This strong strategy leverages the brand’s Italian sportive roots to open up new business opportunities with customers who integrate the brand’s ethos into their lifestyles. So far, it’s clear that Juventus’ game will grow far beyond the white lines of its Turin field.

As the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia approaches, we are about to see which new brands will debut in this sporting goods arena and fight for the championship. Who will conquer the hearts and minds of the largest crowd on earth? Who will connect better to consumers in this constantly changing environment?

Sports brands across the board should be asking themselves these questions. Because it’s no longer about performance—it’s about channeling what your brand stands for to inspire more people, get closer to them, and make “sport” a part of everyday life.

Managing Director, Interbrand São Paulo