Innovator Interviews: Decathlon’s Frances Sue

Innovator Interviews: Decathlon’s Frances Sue

Frances Sue, joined sporting goods brand Decathlon, two years ago to grow brand awareness in the UK. At the time, Decathlon had been in the UK for 20 years but brand awareness was still relatively low at less than 50%. 

“I was actually quite shocked it wasn’t as well known,” says Sue, head of brand and marketing communications for the company. “I came to grow brand awareness in the UK and align the brand across a lot of the communications channels so that across the channels there is a lot more consistency.” 

Sporting goods brand Decathlon’s mission has always been around making sports accessible to the many, which often meant people trying new sports for the first time. But the brand wanted to also serve consumers beyond novice level and therefore has transformed its messaging to focus on “moving people through the joy of sport as well and the wonders of sport.” 

“I run marathons, but that’s other people’s worst nightmares,” explains Sue. “It’s in moving the way that they want. We’ve been positioned as an entry level, try a new sport brand, which is still definitely part of our bread and butter. But it’s also building right through to some more of the performance products, as well.”

The messaging is now focused on showing a range of price points in a category, as well as the different technical specs. Take camping, for example. Decathlon is promoting an easy tent that’s easy to set up and take down to address a segment looking for a simple experience. They also offer a rooftop tent for those that love wild camping that do it for a passion for adventure around the country. 

“We are just making sure that we’re mindful of the different customer needs and are segmenting those expert lead athletes from those that just want to move every day,” says Sue. 

Whether it is camping, biking, swimming, pickleball, paddle boarding, tennis, running, or any other sport you can imagine, the brand is looking to tell stories to a range of audiences in order to cultivate relationships with people no matter where they are in their relationship with sports. Since the company began this refresh, the brand has seen year-over-year growth, particularly in some regions like London, where brand awareness is now over 60%. 

Brand Innovators caught up with Sue from her office in London to talk about this brand shift, summer sports and innovation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How are you telling these sports stories?

We are a very seasonal business. At the moment, for example, we are planning the strategy and direction for summer from an overarching theme perspective. Then working closely with internal product teams on the themes they’re seeing from a product perspective in terms of hero products. For example, it might be camping, hiking and water sports leading up into summer. Once we’ve got the hero categories, I’ll look at planning media from a paid perspective, working closely with our creative studio to then create the look and feel and the identity of the campaign. Then that will start to reflect across the channels as well. 

I’ll set the overall plan and the direction but then each of the channels will then have their own approach in terms of how to activate it across the channels. For example, social media will take that brief and the scope of the campaign and then create their own reels based on whether it’s focusing on the technical specs of a product to show that it’s expertly designed or might feature some of the design story from their team over in France. It might also then focus on some of the PR activity that we’re going to again build our authority in the market because we don’t have the same brand heritage in the UK as we do in France. 

Can you share an example of one of those stories?

We have launched a football boot. This football boot is innovative in the fact that it adds material that forms the boot itself, which is quite unusual. Football boots often need replacing because the bottom of the boot starts to peel away. So we’ve developed one piece boots that prevent cracking. To build credibility, we took some key football journalists to show them around the shoe design lab so that they could experience the whole design process, how it’s manufactured, and then test the boots. We got very positive press coverage, which started to build our reputation in terms of a higher priced football boot and that opened up the conversation with the football audience that we’ve never really had before.

Another product was the folding bike. We coined it as the challenger to the Brompton Bike. It was the design of the mechanics that opened up the bike and could just be unfolded in one second, which again makes it super easy for commuters. It was more compact than a Brompton bike. We leaned on media, The Evening Standard, a big commuter paper, to review the product and talk about its benefits. 

How is the brand thinking about sustainability?

We’ve been doing a lot of work at the moment on the circular economy. We’re launching a couple of new propositions this year. We’ve just gone live with our rentals service. We’re the first retailer that offers a rental on sporting goods across a number of sports. It’s had a lot of attention, in terms of addressing not only the cost of living crisis, in terms of the ability to rent sports equipment from £10 a day, as well as the maximizing usage of our products. It’s quite a game changer. A lot of the products that were demo or display products and are then moved into our rental proposition so that we’re getting as much usage as possible out of them. It gives people the ability to try new sports. A lot of the rental products are quite high ticket items such as stand up paddle boards, kayaks and ebikes. It gives people the opportunity to test it to understand whether or not it’s the right product for them. That’s one component of our circular economy. 

We’ve also been piloting buyback as well. We’re testing it on bikes at the moment. If you bring it back to us, we will provide an estimate of how much it is worth and in turn, the customer gets Decathlon gift cards so that they can then redeem against their next purchase. Those bikes are bought back and then sold as part of our second life range. We’ve also got a workshop in store as well. We repair tents, bikes, etc. People are repairing and maintaining products. We are starting to build on a circular economy.

Can you talk about how you’re thinking about customer loyalty and building these relationships with clients?

Another pilot that we’ve just launched is a new membership program based on customer spend. The customer accumulates points that can be redeemed against the next purchase. These points basically have monetary value. Further down the line, they’ll also be able to donate the points to charities, whether it’s local sporting communities or other nominated charity partners. If the customers also use our workshop services or buy sustainable products – such as our Eco design range which is made from recycled materials– they will get additional points over and above the baseline points program. 

Can you talk about how you’re thinking about innovation?

Sustainability is top of mind for us. We’ve seen some of the innovative products from our team in France like edible gels pods that you see people consuming, whether it’s in marathons or long cycles. Later this year, we will have a version that is packaged in an edible form. The danger of marathons is just the amount of wrappers that are left along the course can prove quite dangerous to slip on. 

We’ve also got some innovation around nutrition, as well as product development in terms of tents as well. We’ve got a tent launching later this year with the rooftop open so you can see all of the stars with a full 360 degree camping experience. We’ve also got the product innovation in terms of yoga mats and fitness equipment that fits into the decor of your flat so that it does not consume as much storage space. There’s a lot of consideration when integrating fitness and sport into everyday life. We are building more performance products as well to address that higher performing sport need, whether it’s carbon plate shoes for the marathon run. They are not necessarily innovative to the market, but its innovation in terms of Decathlon’s overarching mission is, in terms of making it more accessible to more people and more accessible price point.