Champion aims to win top five status

Sara Lee is putting its faith in the duo behind the Wonderbra phenomenon in a bold attempt to make Champion a major force in UK sportswear. Given their modest budget, the pair will have their work cut out.

Sara Lee, the cake maker and world’s largest apparel company, is hoping Brian Duffy and David Kelly can do for the sportswear market what they did for push-up bras.

The corporation, for which Duffy is the UK and European president for hosiery, has put the former Wonderbra supremo and his right hand man in charge of its US-style sports clothing brand Champion (MW October 15).

The move aims to address the gulf between Champion’s success in the US (and other parts of Europe) compared with the UK. Apart from contributing £750m a year in worldwide sales, Champion is also the official kit supplier to the US Olympic team and official brand of the US hockey, basketball and American football.

In Europe, it is ranked fourth in most markets behind Nike, Adidas and Reebok. In the UK, however, where the brand was only launched in February, it only makes it into the top ten.

In November, Sara Lee appointed Fred Nykamp, managing director of Champion Canada, to lead the UK push. The company’s aim, as stated back in February, is to push Champion into the UK top five.

However, after less than a year, Nykamp has now been replaced by Kelly, who – though named as marketing director – will take over day-to-day responsibility for the brand. According to a spokeswoman, Nykamp was released without a job to go to, despite sales having tripled during his year at the helm.

The spokeswoman says: “He did a great job over here. However, I think it is time to take it to the next stage of development.”

Duffy and Kelly, who also helped launch a range of Pretty Polly bras in February (MW February 25), will be joined on the project by TBWA GGT Simons Palmer and, more notably, the agency’s creative director Trevor Beattie. Beattie was the man behind much of GGT’s Wonderbra work, and since then he has worked on two major Pretty Polly launches under the guidance of Duffy.

Beattie says: “The great thing about Brian is that he understands that advertising is only part of the mix. It is certain that from here we will step it up a gear.”

In the past, Duffy’s hosiery projects have been supported by packaging designed by companies such as Lewis Moberly and Lloyd Ferguson Hawkins. But it is the PR work, most evident in the creation of the “Wonderbra girl”, that has most caught the eye. Models Eva Herzigova, Caprice and Adriana Sklenarikova – although the latter two were chosen after Duffy’s tenure – have rarely been out of the tabloids and “lad” magazines since they were presented as successive Wonderbra girls.

The Sara Lee spokeswoman says: “David and Brian have created some very exiting PR and advertising campaigns. I think we can expect the same kind of thing for Champion.”

Kelly confirms PR will play a major part in the campaign.

“It is more a question of changing the balance of the spending than increasing it,” he says. Just £300,000 is reported to have been spent on the Wonderbra relaunch.

However, the new campaign will be one of the trio’s toughest challenges to date. The sports apparel and footwear sector is dominated by three super-brands – Nike, Reebok and Adidas-Salomon – which hold the top positions both in the US and throughout Europe.

In the UK, Adidas-Salomon is dominant. Last year, its European sales were worth £2bn; Nike’s £1.4bn and Reebok’s £700m.

Adidas-Salomon’s domination is centred on extravagant sponsorship and ad spending which new entrants will find it hard to match.

Tina Martin, marketing manager at sportswear buying and marketing group Intersport, says: “If Champion is to compete with the big three, it has to affiliate itself with grass-roots-level sport. Creating an aspirational brand is very hard in the UK because goods will be discounted by retailers at the drop of a hat. The big brands overcome that with sponsorship and advertising which uses aspirational sports stars.”

David Beckham, one of the many footballing stars on Adidas’s roster, is reportedly being paid £2.5m to wear its football boots. Champion, by contrast, has a £2.5m all inclusive marketing budget for the entire year.

Including sponsorship deals, Nike, Adidas and Reebok each spent about £10m a year on advertising, which usually features some or all of their sports stars.

Beattie says the machismo images of recent ad campaigns, most evident in Nike’s poster drive two years ago when former football star Eric Cantona threatened to destroy the English game, will not play a part in his work for Duffy. “Champion will certainly not get mistaken for Nike and Adidas, which I feel are pretty interchangeable at the moment.”

It is likely that Champion will veer away from tried and tested routes towards player sponsorship. Despite its sporting credentials in the US, it may even steer a course towards the vaguer area of leisurewear.

Champion’s US heritage could put it in the same league as Gap, earning plaudits for simple utilitywear clothing.

Michal Tarlowski, account executive at Taylor Nelson Sofres’ Sportswear Trak, says: “Gap has done well in basic hooded tops, fleeces and good sturdy clothing. I see Champion on a similar plane. It is not too flashy and I feel there is a niche for good, basic activewear.”

Tarlowski adds that the brand is entering the market at a tough time for UK sportswear brands, with full-price sales having declined in the last year because of discounting. In the 24 weeks to July 4, sales fell by 15 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to TN Sofres Sportswear Trak. Retailers have been forced to discount items, leading to lower margins and reduced profit.

It is also an awkward time for larger players because of pressure from grey market retailers, including UK supermarkets, which are increasingly sourcing products from outside the UK – where goods are cheaper. Several forthcoming test cases will determine whether manufacturers can control the prices retailers charge for their goods.

Beattie, Duffy and Kelly can be expected to conjure up significant press coverage for Champion, but it remains to be seen whether UK consumers, notoriously unimpressed with major US sports, will see it as a credible brand.

The UK public’s relationship with sport mirrors a slogan used in a recent Nike campaign. “Football, football, football,” says a distraught wife to her husband, “that’s all you ever think about.” Champion’s weakness in this respect will be a significant element in the trio’s thinking.


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