How wearables are changing the face of sports brands

With smartwatch and fitness band sales more than doubling in the UK last year, brands are placing an impetuous on wearable technology in a bid to stand out from the competition.

Brits purchased three million fitness bands and smartwatches last year, up 118% on 2014, according to data from Mintel. Unsurprisingly, sport brands are trying to get in on the action.

New Balance recently created a whole new division (New Balance Digital Sport) in a bid to connect consumers with wearable technology to improve their athletic performance. It is teaming up with Google and Intel on hardware creation and plans to launch an Android-based sports watch designed for both amateur and professional runners later this year.

Rival Under Armour is also making a push into fitness wearables, with a family of devices created in partnership with HTC under the new sub-brand Healthbox. The LED-display bands will offer all the usual fitness band features such as heart rate tracking and phone notifications.

Growth potential

Last year, Fitbit, which is still the market-leading brand for fitness wearables, grew its revenues by 168% year-on-year during its third quarter. Lucy Sheehan, the brand’s head of marketing in EMEA, believes the opportunity is huge. She cites YouGov data showing that just 14% of Brits owned a wearable last year, up from 6% in 2014.

Sheehan told Marketing Week: “With people caring more and more about their health, these are devices that can span the entire population, there’s so much untapped potential for us to link up with organisations such as the NHS. We can hit half the UK population in a relatively short space of time, it isn’t unrealistic.”

Sports wearable brands such as Fitbit have changed the way people exercise

Perhaps reacting to Apple’s partnership with Hermes to increase the style credentials of the Apple Watch, Fitbit has made an effort to make its new Alta fitness band more fashion-led in design. It has a customisable, colourful appearance and was designed in partnership with American fashion designer Tory Burch.

Fitbit has also recently launched the male-focused Blaze fitness smartwatch, taking its total range to eight products. The interchangeable leather strap of the Blaze also appears to be a play into a more fashionable territory.

“Fitness means something different to every single person and that’s why you have to create products that are tailored around the user to succeed in this space,” explains Sheehan.

“If you’re wearing the same product 24 hours a day you have to feel good about it, it’s a lifestyle accessory after all. We see plenty of room for collaborations to ensure Fitbit is big within fashion circles and not just seeing buzz in sporting circles.”

Maintaining authenticity

Graham Dicken, EMEA marketing manager for New Balance, says sports brands must now have a tech strategy or face getting left behind. In particular, tech can provide data on customers that can help personalise both the experience and its products.

New Balance is using 3D printing technology to enable runners to create customised soles for their running shoes. Dickens believes it can build brand loyalty by developing physical products that make use of smart technology.

“We’re launching the first ever mid-sole shoe that’s the result of 3D printing and accelerating our work in the wearables space as we want to build that loyalty with our customers,” Dickens told Marketing Week.

“The key here is to provide customisable products as that’s what will boost long-term loyalty and make people relate more to the brand.”

new balance
The New Balance Digital Sport division will create a new sports watch

However, there are also risks, according to Steve Martin, CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.

“As a sports brand you can’t just launch a watch to tick a box, it has to be authentic,” he explains. “If you focus too much on tech and then your shoes aren’t fitting as well or look outdated then that isn’t good. That’s the trap a lot of brands are falling into.”

But Dicken insists New Balance isn’t losing focus by becoming more tech-focused.

He says: “Our consumers are tech savvy but our performance products remain the backbone of who we are as a brand. The move into wearables through wearables hardware is an engagement piece. We are a footwear and apparel brand first and for all, this just means we can evolve customer engagement through customisation at even deeper levels.”

The next chapter

M&C Saatchi Saatchi Sport & Entertainment’s Martin says wearables are already becoming “generic” in their perception and that although it’s a growing space, brands must “constantly think about the next big thing”.

He warns: “By nature the tech space is a continuously changing, almost torturous, affair.

“One year wearables could be in, next year it could be something new.”

Steve Martin, CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.

And although wearables are selling well, the public may still need convincing. Some 60% of UK consumers remain worried by security implications, according to Mintel, while more than half say they don’t see the value in wearable devices.

However, Sheehan is convinced of their long-term durability and says Fitbit isn’t resting on its laurels.

She concludes: “We are focused on delivering the best technology but only on devices that people want to use. There’s endless long-term potential, for example, in how VR can change the fitness category.

“Once you are in the Fitbit ecosystem there’s a real sense of community, a shared goal, and that isn’t something that’s an overnight thing. To succeed in this market you cannot just have a one size fits all approach, your product has to mean something different for everybody that uses it. We’re confident this will only get bigger and bigger.”


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Hide Comments1 Show Comment
  • Mike Halligan 13 Feb 2016 at 1:01 am

    It’s definitely having a massive impact, although I’d say its more the app than the wearable. Someone interacting with say a New Balance health app a few times a week creates a completely different connection with the brand than seeing an ad or engaging with some content once a month

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