Champion Aims To Turn A Brand Into A Verb

Champion, long a favorite of young athletes, is looking for a higher calling. With a new purpose, look, and tone of voice, it plans to elevate the brand, reinventing some of its greatest hits and reaching out to the creative community. Vanessa LeFebvre, president of global activewear at the Hanesbrands-owned company, tells Retail Insider what’s driving the change.

Retail Insider: You came to Champion about a year ago from similar roles at Adidas, Stitch Fix and Lord & Taylor. What led you to this “Champion what moves you” repositioning?

Vanessa LeFebvre: This past year, we’ve had to ask ourselves some hard questions. We know we've made some mistakes that led to our business decline. In redefining Champion, we started with the concept that champion isn't just a noun. It's also a verb. I have this quote from Muhammad Ali on my wall that says, “Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision.” It’s about what they champion, and it means standing for something. Our purpose is to champion a better tomorrow.

Retail Insider: How does that connect to creators?

LeFebvre: We've been a canvas for self-expression since the beginning, with a rich history of working with artists. [The late fashion designer] Virgil Abloh is probably the most famous.

As we think about championing a better tomorrow, we want to inspire creators, highlighting people crafting with purpose. We’re identifying athletes, artists and musicians championing something that moves them. The campaign brings together a portfolio of people from around the world. And we’re starting two-way conversations. We want to be more interactive.

Retail Insider: You compete with Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour, as well as store brands at Dick’s. What do you want people to think when they see the Champion tag?

LeFebvre: That we stand for quality. We've persevered all this time because we make amazing goods. We invented the hoodie, the first sports bra, and reverse weave. Our leggings fit. People love us for a reason, including value. And we’re elevating the clothing and introducing some higher price points, although we will continue to be an accessible brand.

Retail Insider: How so?

LeFebvre: One of the things I'm most excited about is a component called Time Capsule. It’s reminiscent of all of those vintage pieces that you love. So it feels like vintage, but it is also modern. It is built off silhouettes that we made for Harvard in the 1930s.

Retail Insider: What company is your closest competitor?

LeFebvre: We want to compete with ourselves. We look at all the competition. I'm inspired by small brands that are up-and-coming, like Alo and Gym Shark. From a size perspective, we're sort of an in-betweener, and that should be our advantage. We don't want to lose our nimbleness. I think that's how we win.

Retail Insider: Champion has nearly 50 retail stores in the U.S. How do you balance your role as a wholesale brand builder versus a retailer? Are they the same hat?

LeFebvre: Yes, they help one another. The number of brand impressions is very influential for purchase. People don’t necessarily buy something the first time they see it. They see it on social media, on someone in the street, or in a store.

So, the interaction between wholesale and retail is more symbiotic than people want to talk about. All these impressions drive a buyer's decision. It just requires being clear on the strategic intent of retail.

With CRM data, we're making sure we have the right partners and amplifying that in ways that support our own D2C expression. It varies by market. In Japan, for instance, our D2C penetration is almost a third of the business, and that’s true in Europe, too. Retail in the U.S. is not easy, so it must be thoughtful.

Retail Insider:
How often do you go to stores?

LeFebvre: All the time. My husband makes fun of me.

We're opening our first Champion-exclusive employee store in Winston-Salem North Carolina, and I'm there a couple of times a week. Whenever I travel, it's the first thing I do. I’ve been to almost every state and know where to find the malls.

Retail Insider: What’s the media plan for the new ads?

LeFebvre: Very targeted. We’ll be bigger in New York, with billboards. And we’re changing the way we show up in colleges, where we have a big presence. We’re creating immersive experiences and inviting students to be part of it. It includes the “Champion Creators Program,” up to $50,000 in funding.

Retail Insider: Can you put the size of the campaign in context?

LeFebvre: It is the year's biggest, and we did reserve money in the first half to support this. This is a global campaign, the first time we’ve used the same approach in every single one of our regions. Each region will bring its own influencers, so there is a local flair. But the storyline is all the same. That’s a first for Champion.

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