Friday 21 October 2016

The athletics wear ceo who won't play ball with the sanitised image of elite sport

Sports brands push the images of global heroes and glamour of major tournaments. Jaimie Fuller has a different marketing strategy with Skins: to expose what he believes is the darker side of the world of elite competition. Sean Duffy talks to the outspoken Australian

Published 13/10/2016 | 02:30

Jaimie Fuller, Skins
Jaimie Fuller, Skins
Skins sportswear

Jaimie Fuller was wrong about a decision that ultimately helped define his global sports wear business, at least initially. That's how he tells it, anyway.

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It doesn't take long to learn that Jaimie Fuller is not your typical corporate boss. The executive chairman of high end brand Skins has developed a profile out of proportion to the size of his business by not being afraid to take a clear line - including on abuses in sport from exploitation of labour to doping.

Fuller tells me his leadership approach is based on being open and receptiveness to other people's ideas, even if can be uncomfortable at times.

"I hate 'yes' men. I also hate being told I'm wrong, but I'll argue the point," he says.

"I like to think I can change my position if someone has a better argument. I like to have a high level of debate, but when I make a decision, I expect everyone to row in and get behind it," he says.

To illustrate the point, he cites the example of Skins' first ever advertising campaign. The marketing agency used by the company came up with a left-field campaign to launch the brand.

It went - "We don't pay athletes to wear our product. They pay us."

Fuller says: "I thought they were absolutely nuts. I hated the idea and I thought it would be a disaster. But to be fair to those guys, they said 'Jaimie, you haven't a clue what you are talking about. You are out of your depth here. We know this will work.'

"They argued the point with such conviction that I came to realise that they were right. And of course, the campaign was a massive success." Switzerland-based Skins makes so-called body armour, technically advanced compression sportswear designed to help athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury. It's not cheap - a vest starts at around €40 - making Skins one the more expensive brands in the space.

That's one reason Fuller knew back in 2009 that he needed a brand identity that sets his gear apart from competitors.

In a somewhat counterintuitive move, he set his sights on the darker side of sports. He says he has a fundamental belief in the good that sport can provide to society, but was aghast when he saw the maladministration which has come to the fore in recent years.

"It is a privilege to be in the business of sport and with that comes responsibility. My belief is that we should use sport to do meaningful things - sport has the power to change the world.

"We wanted to identify ourselves as a brand with a clear, ethical philosophy, so we set about creating campaigns that show we care about what happens in sport."

Last year Skins launched a campaign aimed at highlighting the treatment of workers in Qatar ahead of the country hosting the 2022 World Cup, the first ever held in the Middle East.

"The Hypocrisy World Cup" is presented by Andrew Jennings, the BBC reporter who has been investigating FIFA for over a decade. Jennings told the audience that over a dozen workers will die every week in Qatar "before a ball is even kicked".

Fuller took his battle with FIFA to the highest level, while Skins gave its global audience the opportunity to express their outrage by providing ready-made complaints to each of the sponsors' social media pages.

It wasn't a one-off. Fuller launched Change Cycling Now (CCN) in response to the tardy response of cycling officialdom to doping in the sport - sparks could fly when he meets Lance Armstrong at a public event in Dublin next week.

The company has also targeted campaigns addressing the issues of doping in athletics called "Choose the Right Track" and a "Rainbow Laces" campaign which is geared towards ridding sport of homophobia.

Where major brands tend to side step the issues facing elite sport, Skins has stuck its head above the parapet.

Fuller felt morally compelled to take a stand. "We expected other brands to do or say something. But big business is so fear driven that nothing happened.

" I don't give a f**k about what the establishment thinks. So I decided we should be the ones to do it. Most businesses think along the lines of 'You can do good for society or you can make money.' We believe you can do both."

He concedes: "You have to be realistic. Just because you are vocal on these issues doesn't mean people are going to rush out and buy your product.

"It takes time. But I do think that after a while, people will walk into a shop and see three brands and say 'yeah I like what Skins are about. I'm gonna buy that instead of the other ones'."

If his approach appears unconventional, it follows a pattern that has proved successful in the long run. In the fledgling years of the business, Fuller operated without a business plan and gambled the company's entire turnover on advertising campaigns. "That allowed us to take our competitors in Australia by surprise when we first launched. We followed that strategy wherever we went and it has allowed us to gain a foothold."

Fuller will travel to Dublin next week for the One Zero conference on October 21, where cyclist Lance Armstrong is also speaking.

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