David vs Goliath: Modern Day Activewear

Written By: Peter F. Grooves

With John John Florence departing the apparel titan Hurley last week, it makes you wonder: have big brands lost their massive appeal?

Do you remember when you went to college and suddenly the brands you wore in high school were no longer cool? The same for when you went into the real world and you’d rather be caught walking around in anything else than the baggy cargo pants you used to wear daily? It seems the same thing is coming for big brands with adults in the world of social media and endless options. Whenever I hear a girl say to another “Hey girl, love your romper! Where’d you get it?”, I am far more likely to hear a smaller, independently run brand like Show Me Your Mumu than one of the old megabrands like Ralph Lauren. On a similar note, when my buddy wears his Marine Layer sweatshirt, he often gets complimented on it and asked about the brand far more than had he worn a Quiksilver sweatshirt. Why? In my mind, it comes down to two things. For one, these popular brands are looking more at the macro level with what can help their bottom line the most, ignoring many of the microtrends that people love the most. Second, people want to feel a part of something unique rather than just a cog in the man’s system. With all of this and more, shopping small is the future and will result in better products from specialized companies rather than one-stop-shop giants.

Big brands have gotten stale with their ideas because they know that they have a mass audience willing to buy their products based solely on their swoosh, their horse, or whatever their logo is. Sure, each of these market leaders have R&D departments working to come up with new ideas to stay ahead of the competition. But do they really care about the products they are coming up with or are they just trying to not get left behind? They often don’t even know which trend is the one that they should be chasing. Small companies, on the other hand, are constantly evolving with their founders often having boots on the ground and a real pulse on the market that they are trying to sell to. They want to sell what their friends would want to buy or what they would want to buy themselves and because of that, they are finding gaps in the market that these larger companies are tone-deaf to. This leads the smaller brands to be the very best at these specialized markets with a relentless trial and error process to perfect their new product for their new brand, where larger companies may give up earlier if the immediate results don’t yield large returns for their bottom lines and shareholders. A great example of this is the activewear brand, Ten Thousand Gear. They make simple but functional men’s workout apparel with compression shorts made out of high quality, lightweight material. Nike makes the same kind of shorts, but it is such a small piece of their puzzle that they don’t care about it as much as their smaller competitor does. Nike is still able to sell the products because of the old school brand loyalty and their economies of scale, but the people I know that own both of the brand’s shorts swear by the more innovative Ten Thousand Gear shorts. Those huge companies will keep churning out their cash cow products as they are and will likely do so until the demand finally fizzles out and they move onto the next big, soon to be stale, idea. Meanwhile, the market will continue to shift more and more to the best rather than the biggest.  

As far as I can see, people take much greater pride in being a part of a new, unique brand than being held hostage to the old powerhouse brands. Allbirds exploded into the shoe market and everyone that had them wanted to vouch for the brand to their friends. It was cool to be a part of the come-up, to be an early adapter, and the truth is they had the best product. It wasn’t until I put on other shoes that I realized how much more comfortable they were than anything else. When you see the Outerknown logo, you immediately think that it’s Kelly’s cool startup company and want to be on the upswing of it. Even the Big Baller Brand generated backorders for Pete’s sake! It’s like how our generation is more drawn to the Green Flash and Juneshine breweries of the world while our dads still drink Budweiser and Heineken. We crave being a part of these small little worlds and treat every consumer decision as an expression of ourselves. These brands are new, they’re different, and they are filling every little gap in the market to suit every type of person, their style, and their images of themselves.

Megabrands are starting to realize that even their massive boardroom thinktank sessions can’t compete with the power of the thousands of aspiring brands out there with the sole purpose of succeeding in their one, smaller market. They are starting to not even try. Instead, they are just acquiring these smaller, newer, hipper companies. Pacific Beach’s own Blenders Eyewear, for example, was acquired by one of the largest eyewear companies, the Safilo Group, who are now able to fill the market of quality sunglasses (that don’t make you break into your 401K) that Blenders was beginning to dominate. These types of acquisitions are good for everyone with the founders getting their payday, the larger corporations gaining their market share, and the consumers having easier access to the same great products within a streamlined global supply chain for improved distribution. Meanwhile, other bigger companies like Billabong are failing to adapt and must be bought out by their fellow huge corporation, Quiksilver. It is becoming clear that innovation is coming from the outside and the powerhouses are taking on the adage of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join em.” 

It’s like the megabrands are the Michael Bays of the world: constantly producing crap that millions of people watch, but nobody walks away feeling any different. Versus the smaller brands are the Richard Linklaters of the world: making masterpieces that fewer people see, but the ones that find it are often blown away. It’s my hope and belief that the future will hold far more Linklaters making movies and smaller brands making impactful products with the Internet age now able to pull all of the best ideas for every individual taste to the forefront.

If you would like to read more by Peter F. Grooves, you can find his recently published book here: Backstreets: Living in My Truck and Out of My Head.  You can also find him surfing PB Drive, grabbing a Saturday morning cup of coffee in PB or eating a Sunday Rocky's Burger.