Overcoming a city slicker reputation: Urban brands push outdoors

If urban athletic brands like Under Armour and adidas ever truly break into the outdoor realm, their diverse appeal might be just what the industry needs.

Under Armour
Trail runner and Under Armour Athlete Kyle Dietz takes the Horizon RTT trail runners for a spin, part of UA’s new outdoor-specific footwear lines.  // Photo: Courtesy of Under Armour

Under Armour has started to stretch its spandex wings, exhibiting at Grassroots Connect, kicking off a summer 2017 UA Mountain Running Series, launching new footwear, and overall signaling a bigger goal shift within the company: UA has decided to go after the outdoor consumer in earnest.

“There’s a very large part of the population that loves outdoor activities, and many of them grew up using Under Armour in high school or college sports. As a brand, we have an opportunity to bring our customers into the outdoor channel of distribution,” said Under Armour’s Senior Vice President and General Manager of Outdoor, Topher Gaylord, on the motivation behind UA’s “renewed focus” on outdoor. He also cited the increasingly blurred line between athletic and everyday clothing among millennials, which makes the market ripe for versatile apparel.

Under Armour isn’t the first urban brand to try to take advantage of the outdoor recreation boom. Adidas launched its outdoor division in 2007 and brought it to the U.S. market in 2011.

Globally, adidas Outdoors has seen enormous growth—it grew 49 percent in 2016 over the previous year—and is now one of the top five biggest outdoor-specific brands in the world, according to NPD’s Retail Tracking Service data for the 12 months ending in 2017. Even so, the reputation other outdoor brands have pinned to their lapels has been slow to bloom for adidas Outdoor, according to retailers like Billy Gaydosh, who took over Taos Mountain Outfitters, now New Mexico’s largest independent seller of Patagonia, in 2016.

“I personally don’t view either Under Armour or adidas as outdoor brands. I view them baseball, basketball, football, and running brands,” Gaydosh said.

He isn’t the only one, according to adidas Outdoor Managing Director Greg Thomsen.

“[Adidas Outdoor] has a brand perception problem,” Thomsen said.

Nike All Conditions Gear: A Case Study

Nike had a similar perception problem among outdoorists when it launched its All Conditions Gear (ACG) line in 1989. Though ACG footwear was popular and can even take some credit for creating the light hiker category, Nike never fully addressed the hesitant consumer perception, and ACG never took off within the outdoor sphere.

“Nike was a leader in innovation and technology, but their challenge was in accessing the outdoor market,” said Lee Turlington, once the global director of Nike ACG and now the chief product officer at Canada Goose. “They had the capability but not the patience to stay with the outdoor market in a consistent manner. It’s difficult to establish relationships with the consumer when you pop in and out.”

Outdoor consumers are pretty picky, and earning their trust takes time.

“Your life is sometimes on the line in outdoor pursuits, and [consumers] want to make sure the stuff they take is going to work,” said Kirk Richardson, a former president of KEEN with 27 years at Nike on his resume and a current position at Outdoor Project as their outdoor business adviser. “There’s a natural skepticism and a longer courtship period to become accepted in the outdoor specialty retail arena.”

According to Thomsen, adidas plans to play the long game.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “Creating product for outdoor sports, you need to be constantly developing and thinking. You can’t go immediately to mass market. Product development takes more time.”

Sasha DiGiulian
Adidas athlete Sasha DiGiulian climbs as part of a clinic, part of Adidas’ effort to reach core outdoor consumers. // Photo: Courtesy of adidas

Courting specialty stores 

As Richardson says, the outdoor industry is still a specialty industry, despite recent consolidation and digitization. Both adidas and Under Armour recognize that, and both said they hope to pursue specialty outdoor retail as their primary channel for outdoor. However, the uncertain times keep retailers hesitant. For them, stocking adidas or UA would mean giving up shelf space currently devoted to iconic outdoor brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and other reliable, high-selling staples.

“As we compete with major online retailers and big box sporting goods stores, we’re pushed to be different, to have different lines, to sell product that’s less known but more relevant to the specific needs of our consumer,” said John Mead, president of California retail chain Adventure 16. “Smaller brands are usually a better cultural fit for us.”

Both adidas and UA have strategies for addressing that culture gap. Thomsen said adidas plans to stick with its athlete-first model, historically successful in selling gear for team sports, by sponsoring top climbers like Sasha DiGiulian and building apparel to suit their pros’ needs. They’ve also played an active role in advocating for sport climbing in the 2020 Olympics. UA has taken a different route.

“We don’t want to try and emulate other outdoor brands. We’re not going to put our logo on a bunch of climbers and mountaineers,” Gaylord said. “If we had an image of our stuff on a big wall, it wouldn’t make sense for the consumer.”

Instead, they’ve signed a contract with Powder Corporation and Deer Valley and Solitude resorts to put their apparel on 16,000 employees.

Both Thomsen and Gaylord spoke about the power of experience in telling brand story and bringing new consumers into the fold.

“It’s not enough to have the most innovative, inspiring product. You have to create experiences to connect with your audience,” Gaylord said.

Adidas has addressed that by holding climbing clinics; UA by launching a trio of festival-style trail running events across the U.S. Both companies have acknowledged trail running as an ideal entry point, right at the convergence of urban and outdoor.

Playing the Long Game

Looking at the success of adidas spin-offs like Arc’teryx and Salomon, which adidas owned until 2005, begs the question: why stick with the adidas name when it’s the brand’s size or urban connotation holding them back most? Thomsen said the market access adidas has makes the name valuable enough to hang onto, even it means they have to wait for a generation that grew up seeing adidas on climbers and trail runners.

“In the short term, [using the adidas name] might not be the easiest route, but in the long term, it’s going to be much more exciting for the industry at large,” Thomsen said.

In Thomsen’s mind, leveraging the adidas name in the urban-to-outdoor shift is what will save the industry. Traditional outdoor has an aging core, and the next generation is going to flood outward from urban centers, from gyms and rubber tracks and city streets. The next generation of buyers will also be diverse, a point of concern for an industry historically reliant on the buying habits of white males. Both Thomsen and Gaylord hope their brands will be positioned to breathe new life into the pool of outdoor clientele, drawing urban athletes of all backgrounds outdoors.

“Younger consumers know us and use our products. We have the opportunity to engage with them in a new and fresh way,” said Gaylord. “By doing that, we believe we can help bring more consumers to the outdoor market as a whole.”