Sports bring people together. Whether it’s getting together every week to play basketball with your friends or joining 80,000 others to watch your favourite football team, sports build communities and connections with other people that often transcend social, political and cultural barriers. An estimated 323 million people tuned in to watch India versus Pakistan in the 2019 cricket World Cup – more than 300 million people all watching the same thing at the same time, and going through the same rollercoaster of emotions together. Because of the massive role that sports play in society, many sporting brands believe they have a duty to promote the right sort of athletes, spread positive messages, and do their bit to make the world a better place. Luke O’Shea, Chief Marketing Officer at 2XU spends a lot of time thinking about the responsibility that sporting brands have and how his organisation can work toward making a positive impact through the language of sports.
Luke O’Shea | Interview
Luke’s career has seen him work across sales, marketing, and product. He began his career working in sales for clothing company Diesel and then moved to sports and outdoor clothing retailer. A self-confessed sports nut, he transitioned to Fox Sports in 2013 to work as a Senior Manager – Marketing, Brand and Communications and a year or so later, he became the Global Head of Brand, Digital, and Media at MORE Than Sport, a Hawaiian-based non-profit focused on helping people in need through the power of sport. He then moved over to Rapha Racing Limited, a cycling clothing manufacturer, to work as their Asia Pacific Head of Marketing and Sales and then Regional Commercial Director. In October 2019, Luke became the CMO at 2XU. He is on a mission to make the world a healthier, fitter place, and believes brand values are extremely important nowadays.
Hi Luke, thanks for chatting with us today. Can you first tell us a little bit more about your career?
I’ve always been very sports-oriented—I guess it comes from the fact that Australia is a really sporty and active nation on the whole. In high school I started getting into different sports brands and started working at a sports store which helped further cultivate this passion. After university, I continued in this vein and took up a job in sports sales. This opened my eyes to the sheer number of opportunities in the sports market and I ended up going to work for ASICS, first on their sales team before then moving into other areas like product management and development. My time at ASICS showed me just how much I enjoyed having an end-to-end view of the entire product lifecycle. I love the challenge of going from concept to reality—it is really empowering.
From ASICS, I went to Icebreaker, an outdoor clothing company. This was a great experience because I got to see close up how a brand can have a massive impact if it’s truly guided by purpose. People sometimes think that brand values and purpose are a bit wishy-washy, but they can genuinely have a massive impact on an organisation and its clients.
Can you tell me a bit more about 2XU?
2XU was started around 15 years ago by a guy called Jamie Hunt, a former professional triathlete. He wanted to blend his passion for sport with a keen eye for what makes a good performance fabric, and in the years since, we’ve done a pretty awesome job—2XU clothing is worn by NBA teams, NFL athletes, Navy Seals, Olympians, and more.
But despite our success, we’ve recently gone back to the drawing board somewhat to reassess who we are and why we do what we do. We believe brand identity, purpose, and values are really important. Modern consumers want to buy into a brand’s mission just as much (if not more) as they want to buy their products.
I think brands are increasingly being found out. If you say all these great things but you pay your employees peanuts and make them work in horrific conditions, consumers can quickly turn on you, and rightly so. You need to make sure that if people peek underneath the hood, they like what they find.
It’s a bit like with people. You can be a smooth talker or a pretty face, but if you don’t have any substance, you will be found out. It is important to be genuine and to have a human element to your communications. I believe that it’s important for brands to espouse truthfulness and transparency. This starts by having a clear set of values that everyone can get behind.
So how have you gone about defining your brand’s values?
I started by wandering around the office and asking 50 or so people why they came into work each morning. I thought this would give me some good ideas, but in reality, I ended up getting 50 completely different answers! This highlighted that while the company was doing well, everyone was pulling in different directions—so going forward, we realized it was crucial to get everyone on the same page. After some soul-searching, we came up with our purpose: to make the world a fitter and healthier place. Despite the fitness industry growing, people are on the whole becoming less fit, not more. It’s our job to try and change that.
Did this significantly change the way that your company operates?
We have always been hyper-focused on the individual—providing great products to improve people’s own performance—but we’re now getting more involved in the community side of health and fitness. We realised that sport is generally a pretty social activity, and even in single-person sports (such as the triathlon), there’s still a really strong sense of community.
We’ve made conscious efforts to focus on the mental aspect of sport rather than just the physical side of things, helping inspire people with great content and stories. Our goal is to essentially support people no matter what sport they play or which fitness regime they follow. We wanted to remove any sense of brand superiority. We won’t make the world healthier and fitter by patronising people or telling them what to do. Instead, we try to support people on their own individual journey and to help them achieve their goals in any way we can.
How do you embed this sense of humanity into what your brand does online?
I think that brands need to be more human in general—to be transparent, fair, and honest in everything that they do. Customer service and social media are key when it comes to making genuine human connections. You have the ability to respond to your customers’ complaints, share their posts, and generally show that you’re there for them. Social media allows brands to really express their own individual personality.
On top of that, we always try to remind our ambassadors and athletes that they’re allowed to be themselves. We don’t want people holding back and hiding their personality. Just because you’re an athlete doesn’t mean that you have to be a PR-friendly robot. You’re allowed to show some personality and say what you think.
And have you seen any tangible results from this increased focus on humanity?
Almost instantly, we noticed that it began to have a positive impact on the quality of our community in terms of their engagement, our email subscriptions, organic amplification on social, more brand mentions, etc. It’s quite surprising—I didn’t necessarily expect there to be such a clear ROI, at least not so suddenly. Our partners are reporting increased sales and they’re also saying that more customers are speaking to them about our brand: who we are and what we stand for. People seem to be more engaged with our brand as a whole rather than simply buying our products. This is the ultimate key to marketing. If you have an engaged community and cultivate good customer relationships, you’ll be successful.
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