Sweaty Betty: building a global community

The concept of athleisure might be mainstream today, but it was an emerging market when Sweaty Betty was founded in 1998.

Over the last two decades, the activewear brand has established a international following by building a global lifestyle community – as Sweaty Betty’s President and US CEO, Erika Serow, explained at NRF’s Big Show 2017.

“We describe ourselves as being beyond fitness,” Serow opened with, “we are founded on the premise that women want to exercise and still look good”.

This philosophy runs through Sweaty Betty’s DNA; all clothing must be made with fitness-friendly materials, even if purchasers choose to wear it for leisure purposes.

This need for ‘beautiful technical’ clothing is one of three principles that underpin the Sweaty Betty brand. The other two are that it must maintain its London cool edge, and that it cannot take itself too seriously. In Serow’s words, “fitness has become very preachy…we live in the real world and know it has to be fun”.

Part of this fun is engaging fitness fans through its store network. Sweaty Betty currently has 44 stores in the UK and eight in the USA, with plans to open a further 10 stores in the US this year. Many of these sites offer fitness classes, building strong associations between their product and the lifestyle choices of their customers.

But while this in-store engagement initiative is ubiquitous in both markets, Serow understands that building a global community of Sweaty Betty fans is not a simple case of ‘lifting and shifting’ its UK model into the US market.

“Brands are global, but retail is local,” she commented. “We have to figure out what is great about Sweaty Betty in the UK and adapt it to the US”.

One of the things Serow remains firm about when building an international business is that relationships don’t scale. Therefore, the community marketing initiatives that Sweaty Betty has developed don’t either.

Instead, Sweaty Betty has devolved its customer engagement strategy to store level, giving staff the capacity to reward the most influential and highest value customers in their region.

Erika cited the example of Lots, one of Sweaty Betty’s most frequent customers at its New York Flatiron store. Lots loves the retailer’s New Balance shoes, and the store manager knows her shoe size, so recently sent her a complimentary pair of the latest New Balance trainers.

“At no point did we think about what the ROI was,” Serow advised. “The store manager was empowered to do that because Lots was a valued customer”.

This community marketing strategy feeds directly into Sweaty Betty’s belief that thinking about measurement in terms of the store doesn’t tell them enough about their success. Instead, they think about the brand in terms of markets. “Four wall metrics don’t tell you much,” she qualified. “That’s about what a box does, but a box is more than that.”

Serow does acknowledge, however, that her strategy cannot be completely localised. Any in-store or regional activity must compliment what Sweaty Betty is doing as a global brand, in terms of social media, direct mail and advertising.

There must also be a global standard of service when it comes to recruitment. Sweaty Betty has a real front-line mentality when it comes to the brand; everyone who represents it is a friend, a resource, and a representative.

Therefore, Sweaty Betty looks for employees who share the same values and interests as their customers. Enjoying both working out and putting words together are fundamental but Serow stresses that “we are not a brand that’s monolithic; we are all about individual personalities”.

It’s striking this global/local balance that builds a consistent brand experience, executed in a community way, has enabled Sweaty Betty to keep growing its customer base for the best part of twenty years.

“The nice thing about this is that, when it works, and the whole wheel spins, you earn more money and more profit,” Serow concluded.

 

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