How Athleta is Bucking the Apparel Downturn and Powering Its Growth

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Athleta has a new campaign.
Athleta has a new campaign. Credit: Athleta

Most apparel brands are struggling. Even those in the athleisure space are having a tough time as competition heats up and the trend cools down. But Athleta, the women's workout label founded in 1998 and purchased by Gap Inc. a decade later, is gearing up for growth.

Last month, Gap announced plans to close 200 of its namesake and Banana Republic stores, and instead open 270 Old Navy and Athleta locations. Ad Age spoke with Andréa Mallard, a former journalist who joined the San Francisco-based Athleta earlier this year after a stint at Omada Health, about how the chain plans to parlay its popularity into further sales.

Athleta's sales are up and the company is opening stores—pretty much the opposite of everyone else. What role does advertising play in the brand's success?
Athleta advertising has always been about truth-telling and not myth-making. We strive to find the real customer insight and tell the truth through our ads, and that's what people are responding to. We don't do anything to make women feel bad about themselves. You can be aspirational and also be inclusive.

With the recent news out of France that marketers must label Photoshopped ads, it seems like that truth strategy is becoming even more prevalent. How does your recent 'Power of She' campaign fit?
"Power of She" is the spinal column of the brand, it's about inclusion and empowerment. We're telling honest stories that celebrate real women and also ignite the sisterhood. We're at an interesting cultural point where women are coming together and defending each other—politically, socially and in the workplace. The zeitgeist is moving where we've already been for 10 years.

What's next?
A few months ago we did a campaign "Permission to Pause"—it's about being mindful. Meditation isn't about being on a mountain in Nepal, but it's the ability to control your own mind. We did free meditation classes at the stores and at Gap headquarters and it promoted the insight to our next campaign. If you can control your own mind, what can you do to be happy whenever you want? Gratitude does that. "Grateful For" is our new winter campaign. The best gift you can give to others and yourself is being grateful.

How will you promote that message?
We filmed little social stories of moments. We talked to some medical professionals too. There's no TV or radio, there may be some print, and there will be a ton of social. We're getting customers to share what they're grateful for and have catalogs devoted to it. We also have fun partnerships like with Pixinote, a startup in Mill Valley, California that sends a letter to somebody you love.

Athleta Girl for ages 6 through 14 launched only last year—how has that been performing?
It's doing really well. It grew out of demand from customers for ultra-high quality performance clothes that are also fun, beautiful and age-appropriate. It doesn't mean pink and sparkly—we're not pushing girls to be women faster than they should be. It's critically important for this brand… and for humanity.

And Athleta now has some denim. Is it transitioning beyond athletics into more of a lifestyle brand?
Performance is always going to be in our DNA, but we're realizing the separation from workout and work or weekend is more and more blurry. The jeans are flexible and soft. We're not moving away from the core, but we're bringing performance into lifestyle where appropriate. You can literally do a yoga class in these jeans.

Could this run the risk of cannibalizing other brands in the Gap portfolio?
I don't think so. Those brands also offer some performance wear and they do a great job. For us, there's more of a focus on the true sports performance. It's designed for a woman who has a big, busy life and lives in transitions—the in-betweens—and we want to serve those messy parts as much as the pure gym or pure lifestyle.

There's a lot of chatter about how Athleta has more size diversity and age diversity in its ads. How do you think such efforts have been received?
I cannot wait for the day when this is not news. We had someone tell us a few weeks ago that we were brave to put a 35-year-old woman in our catalog. It's not brave. Women are told beyond a certain age you're not culturally relevant anymore—in Hollywood, in magazines. We reject that. Our attitude is hyper-inclusivity. We want to disabuse people of the idea that unless you're a size 2 and 19-years-old, you can't be fit. The women in our magazines are there for a reason—because they're amazing, badass athletes.

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