Why Fitbit is shifting focus from fitness to fashion

Despite its share price dropping by half in the past month, wearables brand Fitbit is forging ahead with a new marketing focus, sponsorship of BBC Sports Relief and fashion-focused products.

In eight years, Fitbit has progressed from San Francisco startup to fundamentally changing the way people monitor exercise. Now, with a shift towards emotive marketing, and new fashion led products, the brand is confident wearables can hit “half the UK population”, according to Fitbit’s UK marketing director Lucy Sheehan.

Fitbit devices use motion sensor technology to track user movement which it combines with user data to calculate distance walked, calories burned, stairs climbed, quality of sleep and even the intensity of a workout.

Fitbit dominates the activity tracker market with revenues up 168% to $409.3m (£284m) for the three months to 30 September 2015 – boosted by an impressive 4.8 million units sold globally.

The brand expects its fortunes to improve still further, forecasting revenues of more than $620m (£430m) in the fourth quarter and yearly revenue expected to reach $1.8bn (£1.2bn), though its share price has been down by more than half since the start of January when its latest product launches failed to impress investors.

Britons purchased three million fitness bands and smartwatches last year, up 118% on 2014, according to data from Mintel. YouGov data, meanwhile, claims that 14% of Brits owned a wearable last year, up from 6% in 2014.

This momentum has clearly resulted in lofty ambitions and has led Fitbit to expand its range to meet different consumer needs.

At the Consumer Electronics Show 2016 last month, for example, Fitbit launched Blaze, a smartwatch that combines fitness with fashion and a product many have interpreted as a statement of intent towards competing with Apple.

However, wearables still have their doubters given that 60% of UK consumers are concerned about the security implications, according to Mintel, and more than half say they do not see the value in wearable devices.

Adding emotion

To combat these concerns, Fitbit is taking a more emotive approach to marketing, which sees it become an official sponsor of BBC’s Sports Relief for the first time. In a bid to raise £500,000 for the charity event, Fitbit will donate a percentage of sales from its Charge HR (£7), Flex (£5) and Blaze (£20) trackers to the organisation.

Fitbit’s UK marketing, which is run from a central European hub that creates different activity across various markets, also regularly engages with fitness communities through exclusive partnerships, including Parkrun – one of the UK’s largest running communities.

“We target fitness communities directly as the word-of-mouth buzz is crucial in growing trust in the brand,” explains Sheehan.

Fitbit’s latest product Alta has a more fashion-led design

“We have been able to rely on our community to recommend us as a sales driver. Once you’re in the Fitbit ecosystem, you can invite friends to join and you can set up challenges with friends; there is real incentive for people to widen the community.

“We want to build our social values through collaborations and try to get Fitbit into the public lexicon. Standing for something like Sports Relief is a huge opportunity for us.”

Pointing to the brand’s recent Super Bowl ad, she says: “We are happy with our above-the-line advertising but digital is key to our marketing. Using the latest digital marketing techniques to reaffirm advertising and look for a more meaningful message, as opposed to just the top-line message you are restricted to on TV, is attractive. You can go deeper with digital.”

Making Fitbit fashionable

Fitbit’s mission to gain mass appeal in the UK market will also see it ramp up its fashion credentials. Thanks to Apple’s collaboration with luxury watchmaker Hermesupmarket leather-bound versions of the Apple Watch can be bought for just over £1,000. And Fitbit appears to be following suit.

Its new Alta fitness band, including variants by fashion designer Tory Burch, was launched at the beginning of February and is more fashion-led in design with a customisable, colourful appearance. The Blaze fitness smartwatch, meanwhile, has an interchangeable leather strap.

“Fitbit Alta will turn heads as our most fashionable device yet,” said CEO and co-founder of Fitbit James Park at a recent launch event. “The attractive, versatile design of this new fitness tracker fits seamlessly into daily life – from the gym to the office, to a night out.”

Sheehan admits there has been a shift in the way Fitbit treats product design. “We know if you bring health and fitness into your life, you have to feel good about it and the better you feel about it, the more likely you are to wear it and the more [activity] you want to do,” she says.

“Bringing in the interchangeable strap and finding more ways to integrate Fitbit into everyday life is definitely the key strategy we now have. We want to create a shift in the wearables market; Alta has to be seen as beautiful and something that fits with your outfits – not just as a niche fitness accessory.”

Proving the doubters wrong

Despite Fitbit being valued at $4bn (£2.8bn) things might not be as rosy as they seem for shareholders.

Almost immediately after Blaze was announced, Fitbit’s shares dropped 18% and at the time of writing were trading 53% below their 4 January price.

Critics are concerned by competitors such as New Balance and Under Armour making moves into the fitness band space, and also fear Fitbit is taking a risk in going after Apple.

Fitbit sold 4.8 million units in the third quarter of 2015

However, Sheehan has a bold message for critics. Having spent more than seven years as European marketing manager at Kodak, she watched the company’s mainstream status disappear almost over night. The Fitbit brand, she insists, is here to stay and will not be having any Kodak moments.

“The biggest issue at Kodak was that we failed to innovate. The company failed to recognise there were plenty of smaller brands out there that could create more inspiring and connected ideas.

“At Fitbit, it’s a different story. We are a leaner company with only 1,000 employees across the globe. The culture is heavily driven by innovation and the ability to voice and develop ideas.”

This innovation could also see Fitbit extend beyond the wearables market. Sheehan 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 virtual reality can change the fitness category. Fitbit is just scratching the surface in bringing technology to the fitness sector.”

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