Speedo, a staple at the Summer Olympics since 1932, is moving from the water to the ice.
The swimwear giant has taken the concepts and designs that made its built-for-speed suits de rigueur for competitive swimmers and designed uniforms for teams from the United States and other countries competing in the luge, skeleton and bobsled events at the upcoming Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Speedo is hoping its arrival at the Winter Games, arguably one of the world's most high-profile sporting events, will underscore its commitment to go beyond the pool. Concurrently, Speedo is kicking off a print, Internet and billboard advertising campaign, its biggest advertising blowout in seven years.
Speedo wants to send the message that its products are sleek, sexy and wear as well out of the pool as in. It has broadened its line to include footwear, underwear and exercise clothes.
By taking the brand into those categories, Sheree Waterson, who became Speedo president last year, hopes to take advantage of the growing performance sports apparel sector. The trade journal Sporting Goods Intelligence values that market at nearly $20 billion, more than five times the size of the swim industry.
"There is a need for an alternative to the current players in the marketplace," Waterson said. She's hoping that Speedo's activewear line, Axcelerate, can fill that niche.
Speedo is one of the swimwear brands under Commerce-based Warnaco Swim Group, which makes and distributes swimwear and holds the exclusive right to market the brand in North America. The swim group is a division of New York apparel heavyweight Warnaco Group Inc.
"It looks cool. It functions. It is an expansion of what we already do," Waterson said. Part of the challenge will be making consumers aware of the new direction, she said.
"I can't believe Speedo has flown under the radar for so long," Waterson said. "It is a brand with incredible name recognition, but at the same time we have not maximized the potential of that."
Waterson's background includes stints at Levi Strauss & Co., Wet Seal Inc. and Mervyn's LLC, and she brings a fashion sensibility to a brand for which chic has been secondary to performance. Part of maximizing the brand will be marketing it to image-conscious young men and women whose swim team days are behind them. These important trend-setting consumers aren't swayed by function alone: there are scores of brands promising they make their buyers jump higher and run faster.
"It is no longer acceptable just to have top-performing items," said Craig Brommers, a vice president at Speedo. "People also expect them to look damn good."
Speedo's market research shows consumers already recognize the brand's performance qualities, he said, acknowledging that the "aspirational" qualities aren't what they could be. Translation: the cool factor is missing.
In an Olympic swimming event, shaving a fraction of a second is important. But only a tiny slice of Speedo's revenues an estimated $314 million around the world in 2004 according to Sporting Goods Intelligence come from the top athletes who shell out $400 to $500 for suits.
It's the recreational athletes, who pay about $60 to $110 for most Speedo items that are key to the company's bottom line. Speedo is hoping the speed will connote a sleekness that will translate into its other clothes.
The cut of many of the Axcelerate products, for example, are drawn from the swimwear lines to provide an athletic aesthetic. Even the material is part of the effect. The advanced wicking capabilities of Speedo's fabric, XD Skin, is designed to keep wearers dry and allow for flexibility.
Speedo has a breadth of experience developing this gear. The brand was founded in 1928 in Australia, and its American offshoot began in 1960, specializing in swimsuits. With swimmers from those countries among the Olympic elite for years, the majority of medalists have worn Speedo products for decades.
In 1987, Warnaco acquired the North America license to make and market Speedo, which is owned by London-based Pentland Group plc.
In 2001, Warnaco plunged into bankruptcy following a restructuring and skirmishes over the Speedo license. As part of the restructuring plan, Warnaco shut underperforming stand-alone Speedo stores and emerged from bankruptcy in 2003.
Today, the company has few of its own stores. To build sales, it must push its products further into the 1,200 stores it currently sells to and add accounts.
"When you are playing in a bigger pond, you have an opportunity to make more money," Brommers said. "You have to go outside of swimwear to really grow the brand."
Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, agreed that there is potential for Speedo to gain a significant following outside of swimwear. "To make it a high-end business, a fashion statement, that is really an opportunity," she said.
John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, said it's not hard for brands like Speedo to spice up their products with fashion accents.
"There's always been a fashion element to this market," he said. "There is nothing particularly revolutionary with being fashionable with this stuff."
But Speedo risks losing its core consumer the one who depends on Speedo to glide swiftly through the water if it focuses too much on the fashion side. But Waterson insists she won't leave that consumer behind even as Speedo moves into new areas, including the Winter Olympics.
"I always go back to our athletes in the pool, which is the heart and soul of the brand. This is a brand that is built around the culture of swimming," Waterson said. "The way that we are evolving this brand, revitalizing this brand, is by taking it on the land to become a lifestyle brand."
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