What We Say When We Talk Performance in 2022
The dialog around performance is changing. Lines of communication are blurring, visual is the new verbal and digital is today’s universal language. While many factors are contributing to this shift in how we talk about functional textiles, what remains steady is our desire for, and an expectation of, performance.
Market research confirms that active outdoorists are dialed in when it comes to understanding the important role performance textiles play in enhancing workouts, be that hiking, recreational cycling or weekly yoga class. However, today’s audience is tuned to a different frequency.
Words used to depict performance in the past included “high-tech” and “hard-core,” along with phrases such as “rugged weather-proofness” and “extreme protection,” terminology primarily directed at elite athletes adventuring outdoors no matter what Mother Nature had in mind. That style of messaging no longer speaks loudly to a majority of those venturing out in 2022.
According to The NPD Group, the outdoor specialty market generated $7.6 billion in U.S. retail sales in the 12 months ending November 2021, an increase of 13 percent over the prior year, and is now sitting at $27 billion in sales. What’s noteworthy is that most of this growing market consists of novice and backyard (not elite) outdoor participants. Further, NPD identifies “purpose” as an important market driver, stating, “consumers want to know what brands are passionate about and how it might align with their purpose.”
Based on interviews with 10 textile suppliers, crafting a compelling performance story that resonates with a values-driven, lifestyle-oriented, entry-level outdoor sector, is challenging, to say the least. Whether it’s a big pivot or a small refresh, companies across the board recognize that constantly evolving and refining their messaging is the best way forward.
Execs from brrr, eVent fabrics, Green Theme Technologies (GTT), HDry, NexTex, Polartec, Polygiene, Thermore, 37.5 Technology and Allied Feather & Down all weighed in on the performance conversation, citing opportunities as well as obstacles. Here’s what they’re saying about brand building in the year ahead:
Telling a Performance Story
When suppliers describe narratives around functional performance, three key themes emerge — Comfort, Durability and Sustainability. Each element can be expressed in slightly different ways, be it “quick dry” and “cooling,” “made to last” and “permanent,” or “less waste” and “nature-inspired.’’ But any way you say it, the characteristics of comfort, durability and sustainability are foundational in performance storytelling.
Comfort has become the universal language of functionality. David Karstad, Polartec VP of marketing and creative director, explains, “Our fabrics are part expert level equipment and part entry-level, cozy accessory. This is because one need not be an expert to appreciate comfortable garments. In fact, it’s comfortable garments that provide a tangible welcome to new participants.”
So, too, the desire for textile durability. “The need for high performance rain protection is the same whether you’re a day hiker or multi-night backpacker. But performance must also mean long term durability,” explains Martin Flora, VP business development with Green Theme Technologies. “If waterproofing eliminates PFCs but doesn’t work or last, then that’s clearly a waste of water, energy and ultimately consumer’s money.”
Thermore’s messaging has a similar narrative. “The end user is changing their shopping habits and are increasingly aware of what they are wearing; respecting not only themselves but also their impact on the surrounding environment,” states Andrea Delachi, Thermore communications director. “Thermore is very focused on these issues, as the company has long realized that durability and sustainability are very much intertwined.”
Matthew Betcher, creative director, ALLIED Feather + Down, believes the current marketplace “calls for a new narrative and a new language for functionality. Functionality, like sustainability, is now something that needs to become systemic and no longer in a long series of bullets.”
“It’s about longevity and allowing products to last longer with a larger mission of improving the environment by reducing waste.” – Nick Brosnan Global Marketing Manager, Polygiene
“Consumers are continuing to demand more from their clothing, with the theme of ‘buy better, buy to last’ resonating across the globe. And to accomplish this, individuals are investing in functional lifewear that offers comfort, durability and versatility.” – Preston Brin VP Global Marketing, 37.5 Technology
Easy Does It
Execs emphasize that today’s messaging should be told quickly and digested easily. Communication also needs to be concise and consistent, sophisticated yet simplified. Speed is key, say execs, who point out the virtue of video, which they say can tell a complex story in five seconds or less.
eVent fabrics’ focus from the start has been on “top of the mountain” athletes and nuances of performance, however, those stories are not resonating now, according to eVent fabrics president Chad Kelly. “We used to talk about numbers, like water columns, et cetera , but when you get into the numbers game, that narrows down your audience.” Kelly adds, “eVent has attracted the ‘techy folks’ but it’s really about staying dry and comfortable.”
Kelly says there has been a big shift in the past three months, as the firm refreshes its website to be more user-friendly and end-use oriented, which includes simplifying its messaging. “We’ve pulled back on the tech hierarchy approach and ushered in a use-based hierarchy, moving away from focusing on the complicated membrane process,” says Kelly. He states, “The main focus of the new approach is: How that person will benefit from what we offer. They don’t need to know exactly how that happens, just that they will benefit. We need to weave in our tech story but it can’t be so complicated.”
The brrr brand nomenclature and storytelling has a heavy scientific thread running through it, yet is presented in a way that is easy to understand and visually appealing. According to Mary-Cathryn Kolb, brrr president, the brand’s identity is “built on a foundation of curiosity, innovative thinking, deep scientific research, trial and error as we explore ingredients and formulas, persistence even in the face of adversity and setbacks, and a relentless drive to keep pursuing better cooling technology.”
“By definition functionality is based around the assumption that any technology allows for product quality being suited to serve a purpose well. It needs to be able to fulfill certain expectations.” – Gary Schloss CEO, GHS Holdings Inc.
“The brand’s identity is built on a foundation of curiosity, innovative thinking, deep scientific research, trial and error as we explore ingredients and formulas, persistence even in the face of adversity and setbacks, and a relentless drive to keep pursuing better cooling technology.” – Mary-Cathryn Kolb President, brrr
A Performance for All Approach
Inclusivity is trending across all business sectors, and increasingly, a “performance for all” approach is resonating with the active community. Suppliers’ traditional target audience, the pinnacle players – both the brands and the athletes – has given way to a broader point of view.
“One way we are expanding our brand is in the area of inclusion,” states Polartec’s Karstad. “From the organization we are building, to the messages we promote, to the storytellers we work with, we are focused on presenting enthusiasts as the diverse group of people they are. By featuring those in front of, and behind, the camera, our recently launched campaign ‘Outdoors are for Everyone’ shines a light on what unites this diverse mix of people- a love of the outdoors and having fun in it. After all, isn’t that the true performance functionality of our fabric?”
ALLIED’s Betcher weighs in stating, “Things like technical performance and fashion / urban lifestyle are blending fast. More and more, you see fashion houses building technical apparel and outdoor brands doing collaborations with fashion and streetwear designers. There is a reason VF purchased Supreme… this is the future, where urban activities are given just as much cred as sending a 5.10. And only when sitting on a stoop in Detroit is just as valuable to outdoor companies as free soloing granite faces will the industry have true diversity and inclusivity. And this all comes from an understanding of the new audience and a major shift in the vernacular.”
Fulfilling expectations of performance is an extension of inclusivity as functionality is something everyone wants from their workout wear. Gary Schloss, CEO, GHS Holdings Inc.,distributor of HDry technology in NA, explains,“By definition functionality is based around the assumption that any technology allows for product quality being suited to serve a purpose well. It needs to be able to fulfill certain expectations.” He continues, ``By eliminating excess moisture our product categories are more comfortable, remain lighter and dry faster when exposed to wet weather conditions.”
Karstad elaborates on this point, saying, “Consumers expect their fabric and garments to perform. They’ve never known life without waterproof shells or temperature-regulating midlayers. So when talking about function, we have to be careful to not get too enamored by our own tech. In one way, functionality is assumed by the consumer. That’s why our storytelling focuses on differentiating our functionality from our competitors.”
Pivot, Evolve, Diversify
NexTex Innovations launched in 2020 as a B2B start up and captured market attention with its TurboDry technology that is based on biomimicry and provides permanent, fast-action moisture transport drying performance.
Having gained traction with brand adoptions, NexTex is now pivoting to B2C. The company is updating its website and social media to tell its wicking performance story and how it is different from what’s on the market. “We have a very visual tech and ‘seeing is believing,’” explains Chad Lawrence, CEO, NexTex Innovations, who references a branding term called the 3-second rule. “It is a little window to communicate with the consumer. And video can be an effective way to tell our story in five seconds or less.”
Thermore also sees value in visual presentation. The company’s latest videos address “Is Biodegradable Insulation Sustainable?” and “Durability is Sustainable.” The approach is done in an informative and factual manner, yet is approachable and engaging. “We very much understand that it is necessary to inform our customers about our new developments, but also about our studies/research on particularly sensitive issues such as sustainability and durability of the garments. We have to be well informed about specific topics and we’re obligated to share information with our network,” states Joe Digirolamo, sales for North America at Thermore.
Kolb notes that brrr messaging gets more sophisticated and mature as the business evolves and grows over time. She states, “People are a lot more interested in the science and technological aspects of cooling technology now and they want to know how it works, what ingredients are you using, is it permanent, is it sustainable, does it contain recycled components, and does it make a minimal impact on the earth? You can geek out a little more on the science, and that’s a good thing.”
“It’s comfortable garments that provide a tangible welcome to new participants.” – David Karstad VP of Marketing & Creative Director, Polartec
“The end user is changing their shopping habits and are increasingly aware of what they are wearing; respecting not only themselves but also their impact on the surrounding environment.” – Andrea Delachi Communications Director, Thermore
“The main focus of the new approach is: How that person will benefit from what we offer. They don’t need to know exactly how that happens, just that they will benefit.” – Chad Kelly President, eVent fabrics
Polygiene has been diversifying its market penetration with recent acquisitions of Addmaster and SteriTouch, focused on antimicrobial protection for hard surfaces, and has also established a brand partnership with Samsonite. All three offer crossover potential in soft surfaces, like textiles. Additionally, Polygiene is expanding beyond base layer apparel to gear. Yet, Polygiene’s overarching message, “use more, wash less” along with “use more, clean less” remains consistent and clearly articulated, explains Nick Brosnan, global marketing manager for the company. “It’s about longevity and allowing products to last longer with a larger mission of improving the environment by reducing waste.”
Brosnan continues, “Outdoor is still the tip of the spear, when it comes to innovation and performance-driven product. But Polygeine is not only about baselayer.” Brosnan gives as an example the company’s recent launches with Gregory for backpacks and Rab for sleeping bags.
Versatility is a focus of 37.5 Technology’s messaging as the supplier looks to keep pace with consumers’ hybrid work/home lifestyles ushered in during the pandemic. Preston Brin, VP global marketing, explains: “Consumers are mindfully selecting clothing that works across multiple activities within their daily lives. Clothing made with 37.5 Technology offers seasonless comfort with versatile performance, and bridges the gap between home, office, and sport while allowing consumers to do more with less and focus on their daily activities. Consumers are continuing to demand more from their clothing, with the theme of ‘buy better, buy to last’ resonating across the globe. And to accomplish this, individuals are investing in functional lifewear that offers comfort, durability and versatility. 37.5 Technology increases the wearer’s comfort range, regardless of the activity.”
“Functionality, like sustainability, is now something that needs to become systemic and no longer in a long series of bullets.” – Matthew Betcher Creative Director, ALLIED Feather + Down
“It is a little window to communicate with the consumer. And video can be an effective way to tell our story in five seconds or less.” – Chad Lawrence, CEO, NexTex Innovations
“The need for high performance rain protection is the same for a day hiker and a multi-night backpacker.” – Martin Flora, VP Business Development, GTT
Outside Factors & Obstacles Faced
There’s no doubt that the growth of e-commerce, accelerated by the pandemic, is shifting how companies build brand awareness. “There used to be a defined pathway of communication — ingredient suppliers spoke with the brands, the brands spoke to the retailer and the retailer spoke directly to the consumer,” observes Kelly. “Those distinct lines of communication are now blurring. That is a big change! Now we have to resonate beyond the brand and retailer to the consumer.”
Schloss also makes the point that sustainability is on everyone’s radar. “Green green storytelling is what the outdoor market is asking for and that encompasses both elite class athletes and the brands that sponsor them down to everyday new entrants into outdoor activities of all kinds.”
While opportunities exist, suppliers admit they face many obstacles. Themore’s Delachi and Digirolamo echo the thoughts of others, stating, “The last two years have been a great challenge. The pandemic, the increase in costs and the difficulty of finding materials are some aspects that have affected not only our market, but the whole world.”
Other suppliers also mention difficulties faced on a daily basis related to the amount of misinformation present in today’s marketplace, the frustrations of slow development cycles, the lack of trade shows, and travel restrictions due to pandemic protocols. Nonetheless, textile suppliers believe continued investment in innovative performance product promoted with clever, concise and consistent storytelling about functional features and benefits will resonate loudly and clearly with the enthusiasts across the board.