Athleta catalog shoot: older models need not apply

Gap chooses its generation, though not wisely

Mark Gardiner
Jan 3, 2014 · 4 min read

About five years ago, Gap bought Athleta, an online yoga-clothing retailer, and began rapidly opening brick-and-mortar stores—usually within a mile of a Lululemon outlet.

Although Athleta only accounts for a small share of Gap/Old Navy sales, the chain is a darling of Gap management, and they’re undoubtedly trying to capitalize on Lululemon’s recent marketing stumbles.

My wife is a 40-something professional dancer and yogini, co-owner of Freebox Movement Arts here in Kansas City; she’s in the very center of Athleta’s target market. Mary recently dropped into Kansas City’s Athleta store on what she described as a ‘power shop’ with one of her friends—a stylish film/TV/web producer of about 60.

She came home with a copy of Athleta’s catalog. Since I’ve got my own (distant) connection to Lululemon’s founder Chip Wilson, I keep an eye on that sector. At first glance, I was pretty impressed, especially by great lifestyle photography. The catalog was titled, “Power to the She”. (That was a campaign originally developed by Peterson Milla Hooks, an Advertising Age ‘A list’ agency out of Minneapolis, that does project work for Athleta; the brand also maintains an in-house creative department.)

When the median age of your customer is 40-something. You hire only 20 something, size 1 models. With the result that even *this* 40-something woman doubts she’s fit enough for your brand of activewear. What’s wrong with this picture?

On my second look, something bugged me. The only two Athleta shoppers I actually knew—Mary and her friend—had a combined age of well over 100. But there didn’t seem to be a single woman over 30 in the catalog. A perusal of Athleta’s web site confirms that the brand’s got a policy of hiring what appear to be teen-to-20-something models, pretty much exclusively.

What gives with that, Gap?

Although the company doesn’t release demographic info, I can guarantee you that the median age of Athleta customers is at least double the median age of Athleta’s models.

I don’t need access to Gap’s proprietary shopper demographics to know I’m right. Tess Roering, Athleta’s VP of Marketing & Creative told Advertising Age that the brand had, “dug in deep with… what media [our consumer] is spending time with.” After doing that, they bought magazine ads in:

  • In Style (38)
  • Sports Illustrated (39)
  • Runner’s World (40)
  • Fitness (40)
  • Shape (41)
  • Real Simple (46)
  • Yoga Journal (47)

In case you haven’t guessed, the numbers in parentheses are the median ages of those magazines’ female readers, per the magazines’ own media kits. (If you’re in the ad business, you also know that if anything, those numbers are skewed young.)

So, here’s the question: Does anyone at PMH or Athleta really think that casting one or two gorgeous, fit, mature women would have hurt the Athleta brand?

I don’t think so. My guess is that it simply never occurred to them to cast a model who is actually representative of Athleta’s customers.

Athleta or PMH might argue, “Sales are booming; how can you say that the absence of a few mature models is hurting us?”

My response:

  • You don’t know if adding mature models would improve sales, because you haven’t tried it. I’ve got $20 that says one or two mature models would help more than they hurt in the short run.
  • There’s a big difference between not alienating a market, and positively attracting it.
  • Diversifying the age of your models makes long-term strategic sense. Either Athleta can establish its bona fides with mature consumers, or someone else will look at those Yoga Journal demographics, and realize that there’s an opportunity to pitch a brand specifically to women with hips. (60% of yoga practitioners are over 35, and nearly 20% of them are over 55. As the Baby Boomers age, it’s inevitable that the number of older yoginis will increase.)

The most important reason to do so, however, has to do with building deep brand strength. That’s something Lululemon never really did, and it’s now suffering the consequences.

Sure, Lulu was stylish; yes, the clothes really did make its customers look fabulous. And yes, for a while those funky bags covered with trite sayings doubled as airline carry-on luggage and book bags—providing additional free advertising. But when Chip Wilson showed yogi-like flexibility by getting his foot into his mouth, and consumers became aware of the brand’s sneering elitism, women’s attitudes towards Lulu changed. Right now, there are lots of women who are vaguely embarrassed to be seen in Lulu.

Brands with deep strength avoid those pitfalls, and when they do have problems, they recover faster. Deep brand strength comes from connecting with customers on more than a “How do I look in this?”, “Will my friends think I’m cool?”, or “Wow, 50% off!” level. Deep strength comes from sharing customers’ values. To demonstrate that—especially with a clothing brand—you need to occasionally use models your customers can relate to.

Boom, baby.

Insights into the Baby Boomers, now that they’re eligible for Social Security

    Mark Gardiner

    Written by

    Helping brands connect with mature consumers as @BrandROI. Author, “Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s”. AKA @Backmarker. Gardiner@RevolutionaryOldIdea.com

    Boom, baby.

    Insights into the Baby Boomers, now that they’re eligible for Social Security

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