Few industries are as competitive – or require more endurance, strength, and agility – as retail. Staying in front of ever-changing consumer demands and shopping habits is more of a marathon than a sprint, and the past few years have seen many notable companies run out of steam well before the finish line, including Toys R Us, The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., and Sports Authority Inc.
The 2016 closure of Sports Authority was a boon to Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. (DSG), a Pittsburg, PA-based company that started as a humble bait-and-tackle shop and is now a $8.59 billion behemoth, making it the largest full-line sporting-goods retailer in the United States. But even with one less player on the field, competition for consumers' dollars remained fierce. After all, athletically minded shoppers can purchase Adidas AG clothing and Nike Inc. footwear from a number of outlets. So to help differentiate itself even before the Sports Authority shuttering, DSG created a number of private-label apparel and sporting-goods brands. A common retail strategy, private labels offer several benefits, chief among them unique products and, most often, wider profit margins. And by 2016, DSG was a private-label all-star, as its growing stable of owned brands, e.g., Calia, Fitness Gear, and Walter Hagen, accounted for approximately 10 percent of net sales.
Looking to expand its proprietary offerings in 2017, DSG created Second Skin, a line of high-performance training apparel for men and women with an emphasis on compression garments (purported to improve circulation and muscle recovery) and high-tech fabrics. Designed to go head-to-head with popular national brands such as Under Armour Inc., Second Skin is aimed at what DSG terms "unfinished athletes," a market that encompasses anyone who enjoys intense training and competitions, including runners, cyclists, CrossFit enthusiasts, and obstacle-course racers. "Unfinished athletes are not defined by demographics," says Kristen Garmey, senior brand manager for Second Skin. "What defines them is their shared mindset – they unite around an ongoing drive to improve, a focus on competing with themselves, and the belief that struggle breeds community."
Second Skin debuted on DSG's website and www.SecondSkin.com in April of 2017. It was a somewhat quiet launch supported mainly by a brand-ambassador campaign involving a mix of roughly 200 professional, semipro, and amateur athletes who promoted the line on their social-media platforms. When it came time to roll out Second Skin to more than 350 DSG stores three months later, however, the company wanted to make a bodybuilder-sized impression on members of its target audience.
One of the firms responding to DSG's request for proposal for the Second Skin launch was Kansas City, MO-based VML Inc., the advertising agency tasked with developing the line's brand image and social-media strategy. This gave VML something of a home-field advantage, but the RFP was broad enough to leave room for multiple pitches. "The Second Skin team was excited to see different approaches and didn't specify many activation mandatories," says Kara Nelson, account director at VML. "However, the team did acknowledge that the biggest challenge would be getting consumers to understand what Second Skin is, what sets it apart, and to put it on their bodies."
Connecting authentically with this audience was key. Traditional marketing wouldn't be enough to persuade these consumers to try a new brand. There needed to be a platform where they could put Second Skin to the test.
Having spent months crafting Second Skin's branding, VML knew that the unfinished athletes DSG was targeting place a high value on workout gear that provides more function than flash, instills confidence, and supports their bodies and pursuits. "Connecting authentically with this audience was key," Nelson says. "Traditional marketing wouldn't be enough to persuade these consumers to try a new brand. There needed to be a platform where they could put Second Skin to the test." To offer such a platform to as many unfinished athletes as possible, VML proposed a cross-country road show that would bring a mobile gym experience to DSG stores and high-endurance athletic competitions, such as the long-distance, obstacle-course-style Spartan Races that are populated almost exclusively by members of this niche audience. Participants would be able to don Second Skin apparel and evaluate how it performed while they worked out, and in doing so earn DSG coupons and gift cards.
The Second Skin team signed off on the proposal, provided that VML could find events that drew a significant number of attendees and were within relative proximity of DSG stores with a certain threshold of foot traffic. The team decided that the tour would kick off with a retail activation at the DSG location in Schaumburg, IL, followed by a sponsored appearance at the CrossFit National Games in Madison, WI, an event that attracts more than 600 competitors and 16,000 audience members. This gave VML roughly two months in which to plan a nationwide road show, which put the marketing agency in its own race against the clock.
Forming a Game Plan
One of VML's first moves was to bring in Department Zero, a Kansas City, MO, marketing agency experienced in producing mobile activations. After establishing the route and dates for the road show, which would visit eight DSG locations stretching from Georgia to California; the national CrossFit competition; Spartan Races in Breckenridge, CO, and Los Angeles; and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, TN, the agencies turned their attention to the look, feel, and logistics of the tour.
"The mobile unit needed to be consistent with the brand image, which is understated and all about performance, and still be capable of drawing attention wherever it went," says Paul Soseman, CEO of Department Zero. "At the same time, it had to provide adequate space for fitting rooms and storage for all of the merchandise displays, exercise equipment, and audiovisual gear." Achieving both aims was a tall order, so Soseman reached out to CGS Premier of Muskego, WI, and Bourbonnais, IL-based Innovative Mobile Marketing to customize a military-style SportChassis RHA-350 rig and a graphic-wrapped, 30-foot BizBox trailer that combined functionality with an on-brand, no-nonsense aesthetic.
Meanwhile, VML worked with DSG on marketing the road show. Since Second Skin had formed relationships with a number of brand ambassadors for the online launch, it was an easy decision to include them in the retail rollout. So the teams reached out to influencers who lived near stops along the tour and asked them to promote the activations on their social-media platforms and hand out fliers. To spread word even further, VML and DSG created a microsite for the launch, planned geo-targeted e-blasts and posts on DSG's social-media feeds, and designed bag stuffers for store employees to distribute approximately one week before each event.
Despite the truncated timeline, plans to offer scores of fitness enthusiasts a chance to break a sweat in Second Skin proceeded smoothly. As the finishing touches were put on the BizBox trailer, Nelson and Soseman where confident they had more than a sporting chance of reaching their goals of attracting 500 workout participants, handing out at least 3,000 coupons and gift cards, and garnering 100,000 event impressions.
Off and Running
When the Second Skin Brand Launch rolled into any of the eight DSG parking lots, it was a difficult sight to miss, thanks to the imposing presence of the jet-black SportChassis rig and branded A-frame vinyl banners that outlined the activation's 45-by-25-foot footprint. Arriving attendees were ushered to a merchandise area in the front-right corner of the space, where two custom rolling racks displayed a range of Second Skin apparel. Brand specialists were on hand to explain the clothing's key features and help visitors make their selections.
Participants then stepped into the air-conditioned trailer finished with black branding and wood-grain vinyl flooring, signed a digital liability and photo/video release, and were shown to one of three fitting rooms. After swapping their street clothes for Second Skin and stashing their everyday attire in a military-style backpack, soon-to-be-sweaty attendees exited the trailer and entered DSG's al fresco gym. There participants were given free reign to run on a treadmill, pedal an AirBike, lift weights, jump rope, and tire their arms with a pair of 19-foot-long battle ropes. The workout area was populated by additional brand ambassadors who asked for participants' feedback on the clothing, relayed product attributes, and shared their personal fitness tips.
After donning Second Skin apparel in one of the trailer's three fitting rooms, attendees were given free reign to work out in the mobile gym. Brand ambassadors were on hand to gather participants' feedback on the clothing and share their personal fitness tips.
As exercisers raised their pulses, the tour manager occasionally raised the stakes by announcing impromptu challenges – e.g., who could do the most push-ups in a set amount of time – and presenting winners with DSG gift cards. When their workouts were completed, attendees reentered the trailer to change out of their sweaty gear before being directed to a 3-by-3-foot iPad kiosk where they could browse the entire Second Skin line and either make a purchase then and there or visit the physical store.
Before leaving the activation, participants were asked if they had any wounds from their training or a competitive event. If they answered in the affirmative and posted a photo of their injury on social media with the hashtag #Earned, visitors were presented with a DSG gift card ranging from $5 to $50, depending on the "wow factor" of the bruise, scrape, or scar. "For unfinished athletes, scars are bragging rights," Nelson says. "We wanted to reward those athletes who push themselves the hardest and create a promotion that would be talked about at the different events." Photos and other social-media posts tagged with #Earned or #SecondSkin were collected by an aggregating software program and displayed on two 42-inch flatscreens positioned on the side of the BizBox trailer.
DSG's presence at the four athletic competitions was nearly identical to the events held at its stores, due to both the parameters of its sponsorship package and the fact that many of the contests had existing exclusive apparel partners. Hired brand ambassadors were permitted to stroll the designated sponsor areas to distribute fliers and drive traffic to the activation, and some traveling influencers were on hand to guide participants through their workouts. But DSG was able to introduce a unique element to further engage with the sizable number of
attendees at these events. The company got permission to hide two to three 100-pound steel "coupons" on the event grounds and post clues to their locations on Instagram. Attendees who found the coupons needed to carry them back to the Second Skin activation, where they were presented with a $500 gift card.
Skin in the Game
In a mere 44 days, DSG's Second Skin road show visited eight states and crossed thousands of miles in an effort to make its presence known on a crowded retail playing field. And just as an unfinished athlete relishes achieving a new personal best, DSG can celebrate surpassing its goals.
By the end of the tour, the company enticed 781 attendees to work out in its new apparel, besting its target by 56 percent and earning kudos from Corporate Event Awards judges. "Encouraging attendees to actively participate in an event is the best way to foster memorability, and events don't get much more active than this," said one judge.
Hoping to distribute 3,000 coupons and gift cards, DSG ultimately handed out 4,000. What's more, Soseman calculated that the activation netted more than 150,000 event impressions,
handily topping the 100,000 goal, and that the branded vehicles collected 1.2 million impressions while on the road. But even that number pales in comparison to the $1 billion in sales generated by DSG's private labels in the 2017 fiscal year – a milestone reached, in part, because Second Skin was able to hold its own against the competition.