Nike’s new maternity wear capsule — "Nike (M)" — launches this week. The collection makes Nike one of the only major sportswear brands to produce clothes for pregnant women. While Nike says the capsule is the result of consumer demand, it’s also a savvy move on the company’s part.

Reputation control

Nike (M) arrives a little over a year after decorated runners including Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, Phoebe Wright, and Allyson Felix accused Nike of discriminating against pregnant athletes in a New York Times op-ed titled “Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby.” It was an explosive scandal for a company that’s long relied on women’s empowerment narratives to market their goods (see the Serena Williams-narrated campaign video “Dream Crazier” referenced in a New York Times headline and Nike’s 7.5 million follower-strong @nikewomen Instagram page). 

A month later, after weeks of public outcry, a congressional investigation and Felix’s departure from Nike for a more inclusive deal with Athleta, Nike introduced a new maternity policy that guarantees athletes’ pay and bonuses for 18 months around their pregnancies, even if they take time off from competition or don’t perform at their best.

While the Nike (M) rollout hasn’t referenced the scandal or their recently introduced policy, it’s evidently a continued effort to shed their reputation as hypocrites when it comes to feminism. Few companies have been as slick in their efforts to self-brand as diverse and inclusive as Nike. Over the last few years, the company has released athletic hijabs, plus size activewear, and partnered with racial justice activist Colin Kaepernick. Nike (M) is the company’s latest frontier, and one relatively untapped in sportswear. While Nike’s public-facing efforts have helped them keep pace with their biggest rival, Adidas, the German company is still the more popular one on Facebook. 

The new frontier of sportswear?

For Nike, it’s expected to be a PR-sales win-win. While Nike (M) helps build their brand, it also gives them a stake in what Business of Fashion called “the next big activewear opportunity.” Maternity activewear only makes up 0.5% percent of the activewear market, although sales for maternity leggings and nursing sports bras are up 171% and 45% since 2015, according to Edited, a retail market intelligence company that tracks fashion e-commerce sales. In general, although birth rates are stable in the US, according to CNN, the maternity wear market has been growing at an average of 3.2% per year. 

A wide open niche 

Currently, the market is “relatively untapped,” according to Business of Fashion. There are a number of boutique brands within the maternity and activewear market exploring their overlapping demographic. Within the maternity world, players specializing in athletic wear include Hatch, Blanqui, and Ingrid & Isabel. Over on the activewear side, Beyond Yog, Girlfriend Collective and Senita Activewear have all taken a stab at maternity. However, all of these boutique brands have limited reach. And for brands like Blanqui like these that focus exclusively on maternity workout gear, it’s a tough business model, since shoppers have to switch back to “regular” brands for athletic wear once their pregnancies are over. 

In the bigger leagues, Gap, Old Navy, and H&M have all delved into maternity wear over the last few years. Despite not selling any dedicated maternity clothes, Lululemon is frequented by pregnant women according to mommy blogs. None of Nike’s direct competitors, with the exception of Adidas-owed Reebok, which launched a maternity line last year, have tapped into the maternity sportswear market yet, let alone become the go-to destination.

What does Nike know about maternity wear? 

Even though pregnant women are starting to see more options, getting it right is a challenge. Kim Kardashian recently came under fire for her maternity capsule of Skims slimming shapewear. While the celeb assured critics that the clothes are designed to “support,” not “slim,” pregnant bellies, the pitchforks were already out as Twitter users accused her of shaming women and trying to squish their babies with tight leggings. 

A more typical complaint about maternity wear is that it's stuffy and ill-fitting. Nike (M), however, has the classic Nike look: sleek and minimalist designs in soft fabrics and neutral colors. As far as fit, Nike’s four forthcoming lines, spearheaded by Carmen Zolman, Nike’s Senior Design Director for Apparel Design, is based on “analytics from more than 150,000 comparison scans of non-pregnant women against those of pregnant women.” Zolman also gathered feedback on “fit, feel and function” from nearly 30 pregnant or postpartum athletes including British runner Perri Edwards, American golfer Michelle Wie West, and Spanish Olympic synchronized swimmer Ona Carbonell, who are each a face of the campaign. 

The result is four pieces designed for pregnant women “before, during and after pregnancy.” They include an adjustable nursing sports bra, a loose scoop neck tank top with extra fabric in the stomach, foldable wide waisted leggings (with a pleat that can be folded down or worn over the belly), and a reversible jacket with a splitseam that can accommodate pregnant bellies or used as a nursing cover-up.

Will the capsule make a splash?

Reviews will roll in next week, but there hasn’t been as much anticipation online as Nike might have hoped. While there’s been some excitement on Twitter, Nike’s Facebook chatter has stalled out around 30,000 since mid-July — its lowest rate in over a year. The Nike (M) announcement on September 1 failed to perk things up, which is perhaps predictable given the small niche of consumers the launch is relevant to.

Despite the plateau in chatter, Nike’s seeing growth in other areas. The company’s been on a hiring spree since the beginning of the year, adding over 11,000 employees on LinkedIn since December 31. The growth in staff is consistent with Nike’s booming share price, which has grown 18% this year. Nike’s staff and share growth are both in spite of the pandemic and store closures which has sent many retailers into debt and bankruptcy.

 Nike hasn’t been completely unscathed. Their sales diminished 38% in the first quarter, but they’re back in “growth mode,” according to The Motley Fool, because of quarantine’s increased demand for lounge and athletic wear and online shopping. Nike (M) has to pass muster with moms and skeptics of the company’s progressive branding, but at launch time, the company’s in a strong position to succeed.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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