Outdoor Voices and the battle for the soul of activewear

I first heard about Outdoor Voices, one of the most exciting and ground-breaking activewear brands in the market, from a friend based in San Francisco. A little bit of Googling told me all I needed to know about why someone from one of the world’s hottest centres of innovation would have their interest piqued by what at first glance seems to be just like every other business trying to carve out a space in an increasingly competitive category.

To tell the story of Outdoor Voices, it’s best to start with its founder. Tyler Haney is the perfect ambassador for the brand she founded; athletic but approachable, a vision of the entrepreneur as you, just getting on and, to use the company’s words, #DoingThings. Since it first burst onto the activewear scene Outdoor Voices has become known for the quality of its clothes and the distinctiveness of its branding. Preaching a gospel of active moderation and moderate activeness, from the beginning it has targeted itself toward dog-walkers and weekend hikers, people who like to be out and about and on their feet but not necessarily aiming for a podium finish at the Olympics. In other words, normal people. The beauty of the brand is that its messaging feels targeted but its message is, in fact, a broad church.

Outdoor Voices produced its first clothes (a matching set of leggings and a crop top) from underneath Tyler Haney’s bunk bed in her New York apartment in 2012. At that point, the brand was little more than a piece of razor-sharp market insight and a vision. Having graduated from New York’s Parson’s School for Design, Tyler had realised that despite having been a successful high-school athlete with potential Olympic aspirations, she’d lost the motivation to stay active during her degree.

So much of the marketing surrounding exercise was focused on performance – on being the fastest, the strongest, the best – and the available clothing reflected this. There was a disparity between the activity normal people were doing – a leisurely jog, a hike through the countryside or a friendly game of tennis – and the clothes available to do it in. Great ideas often sound obvious once someone’s thought of them – just think of Fever Tree and premium mixers for premium drinks – but the beauty of them is that almost no one does. Tyler Haney registered that consumers might want to wear functional, technically-sound apparel whose aesthetics matched the levels of activity they were engaged in. And so Outdoor Voices was born.

Photo Credit: Outdoor Voices

It’s since gone from strength to strength – just earlier this year the business closed a $34m Series C funding round led by Alphabet’s Google Ventures that brought its total funding to date to well over $50m. Although Outdoor Voices does not disclose its figures, it reportedly grew turnover by around 800% in 2016 and has more than doubled revenues every year since its inception. Former J. Crew executive Mickey Drexler has signed on to chair the board and the brand counts several fashion and apparel luminaries as investors, including A.P.C. founder Jean Touitou. For a six-year-old brand, Outdoor Voice’s ubiquity in the markets it targets is very impressive.

At the root of this success, of course, has been effective and innovative branding. Their tagline – #DoingThings – encapsulates Outdoor Voices’ approach. In Tyler Haney’s own words, their clothing is about “approaching activity with moderation, ease, humour, and delight.” The target customer is someone who’s active, but not defined by it. The messaging is intentionally non-prescriptive, replacing the aspiration overtones of performance-focused brands with relatability.

Branding has forever been about selling a vision of life to the consumer, and so it goes with activewear. The different between Outdoor Voices and Nike is that Nike sells you on the idea of your absolute best self – the peak of what you could be if all of your physical potential was fulfilled in a pitched battle between your will and the race track. Outdoor Voices sells you yourself, but maybe going on a jog once a week, or taking more walks than you used to. Outdoor Voices sells you the idea that in their clothes, you can feel comfortable ‘doing things’ – what those things are is entirely up to you.

However, branding is useless if nobody’s seeing it – that’s where Outdoor Voices’ canny use of social media comes in. From daily updates on Instagram to product launch campaigns driven by affiliated brand ambassadors and celebrities with more than one body type the company has utilised the channel to create an organic, thriving buzz. Importantly, the images are of real people doing real things, people with the kinds of figures you’re just as likely to see on the high street as the catwalk.  It takes just a few seconds on Outdoor Voice’s website or its social media feeds to understand exactly what it stands for – how many other businesses can necessarily say the same?

Outdoor Voices’ Instagram

Interestingly, the company has committed to launching bricks-and-mortar stores, with eight already opened and five more on the way in 2018 alone. It’s the first phase of an ambitious rollout strategy that could see them expand to up to 50 sites. As a digital-first business, they’ve signed on to the experiential retail strategy wholeheartedly, viewing their stores more as community centres and permanent brand advertisements than points of sale.

The business has also benefitted from, and been a catalyst of, the immense growth in the activewear and adjacent athleisure markets in recent years (although the company itself rejects the label). Between 2011 and 2016 the market for athletic wear expanded so rapidly that it now comprises around a 3rd of all apparel sales in the US. Though growth has slowed in recent years as the initial wave has subsided, it is still rising at a faster rate than the market as a whole.

This does bring its own challenges – not least of which is the plethora of other activewear startups, from Bandier and Fabletics to Tory Sport and Yogasmoga, which have arisen over the past few years. If a measure of a company’s success is the extent to which their competitors try to imitate them, then Outdoor Voices is doing very well indeed. This has been facilitated by the relatively low bar to entry of the activewear space. It simply doesn’t cost a great deal to design and produce a set of leggings and a top, and growing interest has led to easier access to the kinds of high-quality fabrics which had previously been the preserve of a select few brands.

Photo Credit: Outdoor Voices. The company’s Aspen store

Perhaps a more pressing issue has been a growing interest among major clothing retailers. The Gap’s Athleta brand of activewear was one of the first to market, but more and more businesses are moving to capitalise on a trend which has shown little sign of dissipating. While Outdoor Voices now has the financial muscle and organic reach to outgun many of its start-up competitors, it will have to rely on the strength of its branding and the innovativeness of its digital-first offer to go toe-to-toe with the giants of the market.

Tyler is often asked in interviews whether she wants to turn Outdoor Voices into the next Nike. I think a better comparison is Lululemon – the brand that paved the way for a whole generation of activewear startups and which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. It’s easy to forget just how radical the brand was when it first appeared, an intuitive jump of commercial genius that in many ways pre-empted the athleisure trend for which it has become known. Only time will tell if Outdoor Voices will have the same impact, but with brand positioning designed to appeal to almost everybody who isn’t a professional athlete, their ceiling is high indeed.

Moira@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup