She called herself the Yogini. She could twist her body in all kinds of ways. She stood on her hands on a hardwood floor and arched her back until her feet touched her head. Her body quivered like a plucked guitar string.
She was teaching at a yoga studio in Los Angeles when she was discovered by Nike, which plastered her face across magazines and beamed her body over television.
"We love the Yogini," said Kathryn Reith, a spokeswoman for Nike, as she paused a tape of the commercial in Nike's headquarters here. "A lot of women might not think of themselves as athletes, but at the same time, there are a lot of women who are doing sports training in various parts of their lives."
Those women are inspiring Nike to go through some contortions of its own. Long known as a brand catering to male athletes and built on names like Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras and Tiger Woods, Nike has begun in recent months to step up advertising campaigns and product development aimed at women. It already leads its rivals in footwear sales to women, but it wants an even bigger market share.
From opening women's stores in the Los Angeles area to starting a Web site called nikegoddess.com to creating sneakers that have a snakeskin look, Nike is trying to dominate a market where having a trendy image scores more points than macho advertising.
Its executives have come up with strategies they hope will take advantage of the differences between how women and men conceive of sport, how they shop for clothing and shoes and even what they think of celebrity athletes. For one thing, the company wants to appeal more to women's desires to lead an active lifestyle than to an image they might have of themselves as a hard-core athlete.
"Especially in this spring season and going into fall, they're trying to make some of their products fashionable," said Faye Landes, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein who gave Nike a middle-of-the-road rating. "Some of it is working; some of it is not flying off the shelves."
For example, she said, the Presto line has been a big seller over all, but some of its colors and variations have not been so popular.
The athletic footwear industry made more than $15.5 billion in domestic sales last year. As usual, Nike led the pack, with almost $9 billion in revenues, which includes apparel sales. Reebok and Adidas finished second and third. But the industry has been stagnant for years, and companies have been trolling for opportunities for greater market share and first-time consumers.
One such area could be among women who buy athletic footwear and apparel, corporate executives and industry analysts said. Women's athletic footwear accounts for a third of total sales, according to the NPD Group, a market researcher. At Nike, women's products make up only 20 percent. Women, meanwhile, are clearly buying more athletic shoes - sales at department stores rose 29 percent from 1999 to 2000.
"If Nike or Reebok hits it right, particularly with younger women - call it 15- to 35-year-olds who work out and wear sneakers for casual use and have a tendency to buy multiple pairs per year - the impact could be very meaningful to sales," said Susan Silverstein, an analyst at Banc of America Securities.
"Most contemporary women have a hard time finding decent athletic apparel and footwear, and oftentimes have to buy men's clothing, which is ridiculous," she added. "If you take a look at a women's sneaker wall today, it's just a wash of white, pink and turquoise."
That look was hip two decades ago. Reebok's white leather Freestyle became an instant hit with women after it was released in 1982. Reebok consolidated its popularity among women when it introduced Step Reebok, an aerobics workout routine, into health clubs and homes in 1989. But recently, it has tried bolder marketing tactics coupled with flashier products to appeal to women under 35: it signed Venus Williams to a five-year, $40 million endorsement contract, the highest ever for a female athlete, and it has released new lines of shoes with mesh designs and toggle lacing systems.
"We want to invite a younger, active, fashion-conscious woman to join our brand," said Sharon Barbano, director of Reebok's women's unit.
So does Nike. But it has more of an uphill battle in retooling its image, analysts say. It has never been thought of as a fashion brand, and seeing it go in that direction is like watching the Los Angeles Lakers put on a runway show. And in the meantime, smaller companies like Skechers, which is expected to make $1 billion in sales this year, have achieved faster growth in the women's athletic market because their shoes are considered trendy.
One analyst said that even within Nike, there was a "general sense that it's by guys for guys." Robin Lanahan, director of domestic marketing for women's apparel at Nike, said, "If you think of the size and image of the Nike brand and the fact that it was founded by men, yes, its roots are in the male athlete."
That becomes apparent during a stroll through the company's pine- scented 175-acre campus southwest of Portland: almost all of the white concrete buildings and athletic fields are named after male stars, whether it is the pitcher Nolan Ryan or the wide receiver Jerry Rice or the soccer star Ronaldo.
But as if to signify its new push toward women, the company recently named its largest building after Mia Hamm, the most popular female soccer player in the country, and moved its footwear design there from the Michael Jordan building.
More telling for consumers is the ad campaign that Nike started in February. The company produced print and television ads that show ordinary women - from a swimmer to a 7-year-old fencer to the Yogini - working out. The commercials are intended to show everyday women taking part in sport, said Jackie Thomas, director of women's marketing. For instance, the runner sprinting through a city's rain- drenched business district says, "I am not Marion Jones."
That campaign reflects the difference in how men and women think of sport, Nike marketing executives say. Unlike men, they say, many women do not think of themselves as athletes unless they are playing a professional sport.
"One of the things we really focus on for the women's group is if you have a body, you're an athlete," Ms. Reith said. "That might be more inclusive than some of the brand positions we've done around more traditional male sports."
These marketing strategies veer away from Nike's traditional and highly successful tactic of relying on big-name endorsers and pushing product lines named after them. The company has endorsement deals with a long list of prominent women athletes, including Ms. Jones, the sprinter; the soccer player Brandi Chastain; and the basketball forward Sheryl Swoopes. Nike's first prominent female endorsers were Joan Benoit Samuelson and Mary Decker Swaney, both track stars. But women generally do not identify with professional athletes in the same way men do, Ms. Reith said.
"I think the way that women relate to them is that they are people," Ms. Lanahan said. "Sheryl Swoopes is a mother, and this adds dimension to her. It's different from holding up Michael Jordan and saying how high he can jump or how many shots he makes."
In February, Nike also began a Web site called nikegoddess.com and a similarly named magazine that is packaged as a slick advertising insert in Sports Illustrated for Women, In Style and other publications. The latest issue has tips on how to keep hair looking good after a workout and where to take a spa vacation. The Yogini, sitting in lotus position, graces the cover.
In fact, with more and more women doing yoga workouts, Nike has taken to the sport like new age pilgrims to an ashram. The company began selling a one-piece catsuit last year, and it has since developed several tops and two yoga pants, which have become its top-selling women's clothes. Nike plans to have 11 yoga- related products on the market by the holiday season.
"It does show a softer side in a real literal way," Ms. Lanahan said. "It has been a nice way to add dimension to our brand."
It has not escaped Nike that sales of its apparel have grown faster than that of its footwear, largely because the athletic apparel market is less saturated. The women's share of that market totaled almost $15.9 billion in sales last year. Nike is releasing a new line of women's running clothes this month that includes a black tank top with pockets for credit cards and a light jacket that can be folded into a backpack.
But some industry watchers are skeptical about how much apparel sales can help Nike. Ms. Landes, the analyst, said that "women do buy apparel, but I have no sense that there's a huge pent-up demand in the world for athletic apparel."
Ms. Landes said she also wondered about the appeal of the name Nike Goddess, which is what Nike intends to call its two 6,000-square-foot women's stores. The first is scheduled to open in October in Newport Beach, Calif., and the second next spring in Los Angeles.
Ms. Reith said the stores would incorporate lessons that Nike learned about women's retailing during a recent redesign of the women's section of the Niketown in Chicago: put some of the shoes on tabletops; do not organize them by rigid sports categories; display them close to matching apparel.
The company is also introducing flashier shoe designs for women. Nike's Air Max Craze, a model released in February, has a strap for a heel and a zipper over the laces. Another new line, the Air Visi Havoc, comes in designs not normally seen on a playing field: green fake snakeskin, baby blue satin and red mesh, among others. The shoes themselves are more suitable for street wear than hard-core athletic endeavors. And they will not be marketed with particular sports in mind, said Robin Rorex, director of marketing for women's footwear.
"Men care about finding the right shoe for the right sport, but women don't," she said. "Women want concepts and collections. Unless we can create stories beyond just shoes, we won't capture that market."
Edward Wong, The New York Times. June 19, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.