This iconic brand once sat at the top of the heap. Champion meant quality, and people wanted it. Then, just as quickly it died out. But with the resurgence of all things 80’s, Champion has come back strong. And while Champion’s comeback may seem like the lucky product of a fickle market, it’s not just a coincidence… the savvy Champion marketing team carefully crafted their nostalgia-based comeback.
History of the brandIn 1919 in Rochester New York, three brothers saw an opportunity. Modern sports were becoming more and more popular, but the uniforms (such as they were) lagged behind. The Feinbloom brothers saw an opportunity to create high quality sportswear that both looked good and served the needs of the athletes and they called it the “Knickerbocker Knitting Company”. In the record cold winter of 1920 – they first marketed their high quality sweatshirts and sweatpants – allowing athletes to compete with the freedom of motion they needed, while still staying warm enough to play outside.
In the early 1930s the “Knickerbocker Knitting Company” became “Champion Knitting Mills, Inc.” – the company we know today as Champion. In 1934 Champion became the official apparel provider for The University of Michigan’s sports teams, and the age of collegiate athletic apparel was begun. Michigan’s coaches talked, and word spread of their brand’s durability and comfort.
This partnership created one of the most iconic items of clothing in modern history – when Champion designers, looking for added protection against the Michigan cold, attached a hood to their already popular sweatshirts, and created the garment we know today as The Hoodie.
Champion pioneered the idea of clothing that would stand up to repeated use in competition, repeated washing, and provide the qualities athletes needed to perform. It was really the invention of purpose-made athletic apparel. Champion had been doing well, especially by Great Depression standards and during WWII, but the best was still yet to come.
THE GOLDEN AGE – 1960s-90s
n 1956 Champion officially adopted their now iconic “C” logo. The logo caught the attention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and in the 1960s Champion signed a long-time licensing agreement with the NCAA. In 1968, Champion transformed women’s athletic market by introducing stylish, mix-and-match Physical Education uniforms. Champion continued to pioneer styles but also fabrics such as breathable materials and reversible shirts.
In 1967, Champion introduced the nylon mesh jersey, designed specifically to meet the needs of football players suffering from heat exhaustion.
1970s – Solidifying their place as the most important sports apparel brand:
In the early 1970s Champion became the official outfitter for the National Football League (NFL).
Their partnership with professional sports leagues made them famous for the rest of the century.
Beloved athletes could be seen wearing Champion’s signature logo on TV in any household.
From 1985 to 1988, Champion experienced its biggest growth yet, doubling profits in just a few years In 1989, Champion was acquired by Sara Lee Corporation. In the 90s, Champion became the official outfitter for all 27 NBA teams. The Champion name and logo were used for all NBA merchandise – some of the most profitable sports merchandise in the world. In the 90s Champion was also seen in film, skateparks, and the hip hop scene. The brand started by three brothers from Rochester that just wanted to make quality sportswear, was now an iconic pop culture brand.
In the late 90s and early 2000s the divisions between sports stars and pop culture icons started to break down. The NBA, led by stars like Allen Iverson – was moving to an edgier hip hop feel. Champion – the performance apparel brand of the 80s and 90s, started to look dated in comparison. They were still the official brand of the NBA, but in the late 90s and early 2000s, the NBA itself was going through an identity crisis. Champion – the iconic brand of the 27 NBA teams, now started to look more like your dad’s brand – more like the past, than the future.
The market for athletic wear was starting to fragment:
Different niches and markets were forming. Champion’s ubiquitous popularity started to become a negative instead of a positive. The brand once known for serious performance was now on sale at department stores like Wal-mart and Target. New competitors were emerging, catering to more niche clientele. Not just companies like Nike and Adidas – with a more aggressive swagger. But later companies like Lululemon and Under Armor.The entire landscape of sports apparel was shifting. These companies provided both high performance and leisure athletic wear.
True to their “Knickerbocker Knitting Company” roots, Champion continued to provide simple sweatshirts and their patented breathable mesh.In 2001 Notre Dame signed a five-year exclusive agreement with Adidas, which ended a partnership Champion had with the university that spanned over 50 years. Champion didn’t just loose favor with sports fans, more importantly they were losing the battle for cool.
Piper MacDougall who writes for Fashion Magazine said in 2019, “I found myself walking around the Halifax Shopping Centre with my partner when he pointed towards a hoodie from the sportswear brand Champion hanging on a rack at Foot Locker, the price just south of $100. Laughing, he told me a story about how he used to fold over the tops of his white Champion logo socks to make the signature ‘C’ logo invisible. At his elementary school in the early 2000s, kids could be bullied on the playground for wearing the outdated athleisure brand, and he feared if people found out he was sporting the brand it would make him look “cheap” or “uncool.”What was once the sign of authenticity was now, not just cool, but embarrassing to be seen in. The once mighty brand, as so often happens in the cruel world of popular culture and fashion, was almost instantly “OUT.”
PART 2: RESURGENCE
From the early 2000s until around 2017, Champion was out of fashion. You were more likely to see their clothing on discount store racks than high-end sporting goods stores. Champion’s shelf-space was being replaced by brands like Under-Armor. Then – unexpectedly, in 2017, just as quickly as Champion had fallen off the map – it re-emerged. Out of nowhere, Champion was cool again. Champion saw 36% percent growth in 2018 versus 2017.They expected another 30% growth in 2019 on its way toward an estimated $2 billion in sales by 2022.
What happened? A few reasons for Champion’s surge in popularity:
Champion’s return to prominence was the perfect combination of nostalgia, marketing, and timing. No brand was better positioned to re-emerge than Champion. In the early 2000s, nostalgia marketing was really starting to pick up steam. Millennials in particular have grown up with strong emotional resonance to older products – with the realities of climate change, social media pressures, and especially the economic realities of the late teens, younger consumers have developed a strong attachment to nostalgia. Anyone paying attention to the impact of 80s and ’90s nostalgia on the fashion world could have guessed years ago that Champion was due for a revival.
According to Time.com, “Champion is a benefactor of three swirling style trends that converged to create a teen and millennial fashion craze: Logo apparel is in vogue; throwback gear has returned; and streetwear—the casual style derived from skateboard and sports culture—is having a moment.”The Champion marketing team not only saw it coming… they made it happen. And when it did…they were ready. The factors that the Champion team used to re-birth their brand:
Diversification in the market allowing it to be a recognized brand. Champion reacquired its license in Europe as it saw strong growth in both Europe and Asia. Champion then homed in on a global positioning and marketed their product as “authentic American athletic wear”.
Champion is available to all types of consumers.
Some people pay upwards of $90 for a Champion hoodie at stores like Urban Outfitters. Others buy limited edition Champion items on luxury consignment shop websites like The RealReal in a price range of about $50-$400.Those who can’t or don’t want to spend that much can still buy a Champion hoodie at Walmart for $25.Not many brands come to mind when you think of companies that sell quality products that cater to every age, gender, and size to both high and low end shops.
Utilizing Social Media Influencers:
Susan Hennike credits the surge in Champion’s popularity to increased investment in social media channels. In 2016, Champion had 200,000 Instagram followers. Today, they have 5.8 million followers on Instagram. Hennike says she even takes the masochistic step of reading the comments to gauge her followers’ thoughts. Many times when you see a celebrity or influencer wearing Champion on social media, they’re not being paid to do so.Champion gifts products to people and has found that the unpaid opportunity encourages celebrities to wear the clothes which then eventually find their way onto their social media.Some celebrities who have been seen sporting Champion include the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Rhianna, and Chance the Rapper who claimed he helped make the brand “unlame” during an Instagram live stream.
What can be learned?
Nostalgia is powerful, but you have to capitalize on it at the right time. A lot of brands could have told this story and didn’t, because they weren’t ready or didn’t see the opportunity. The old adage: “Chance favors the prepared mind” is true here – the Champion team was ready, and when the opportunity came, they seized it.Being everywhere is a double-edged sword. Champion’s presence at discount stores hurt them in the 90s, but when combined with hi-fashion or hip-hop collaboration in the 2000s it’s seen as a positive. We use the adage “double edge sword” to mean something that can be either good or bad – depending on whether you know how to use it. Champion knew how to use it. They turned potential negatives into positives by using the authenticity of their legacy to shape the narrative.
Speaking of legacy: It’s not enough to be a heritage brand, you have to know how that heritage applies and is relevant today. The importance of understanding the role of style and cultural ebbs and flows in design is extremely important. The importance of understanding the power of the right type of endorsements to drive perception is critical. Collaboration is key for brand resurgence. We see it time and time again, that collaborating with the right artists, athletes, or other cultural drivers within your core customer segments is critical to a comeback. Champion did all these things well – and the result was that it looked like their comeback was “instant” and “inevitable.” When in reality it was the result of good planning, years of excellence, and hard work. Want to strategize a comeback? Put those three things together and you can’t go wrong.
We speak about
[04:10] Champion’s history
[09:30] The Golden Age
[14:15] The Fall
[19:10] The Comeback
[32:00] What Can Be Learned