Having spent the week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it would appear that fitness & sport tech has started to reach mainstream prominence. In a way it has, in others it hasn’t. It seems like everyone has a device (from gaming company Razer to major mobile player LG to printer/projector maker Epson), but not all have a clue on how to be successful in this emerging market and many will fail. I believe this is one of the true early wearable markets that will see strong growth as there is clear market need and value the device provides to the user. Wearable devices are uniquely different from major technology devices before them, since they are worn on your body as well as solving problems normal people have. Helping one reach their health and fitness goals is a strong motivator. Therefore, successful companies need to focus on the customer first and what problem they are trying to solve for the target user. Those that can successfully marry technology innovation with a strong customer target and intimacy of the customer problems will be successful. We have published a detailed report here on some of the major trends and recommendations in the fitness wearable market coming out of CES, but will provide our overall perspective in this article.
I want to draw on a baseball movie analogy to help explain. A few years ago, the movie Moneyball (and the underlying 2003 book based on true story) told a story of how the Oakland A’s Major League Baseball team were able to succeed with a shoestring budget vs. some of the big boy teams. They did this by successfully marrying the historical art of the game with new science. In the movie, Paul DePodest, a Harvard educated economic major, introduces A’s GM and former player Billy Beane to a new class of analytics called sabermetrics to help evaluate talent and get the most out of their budget. This story provides a great illustration of two sides coming together to see success. Some may say that A’s were successful based on science alone, but I disagree. Having seen Beane speak on video, I know it was the ability for them to take the new science along with knowledge of the market which enabled their success. Companies competing in the emerging fitness wearables market can learn something from this.
The winners in the fitness wearables market will be those that know their customers and have a clear plan on how they are going to help them reach their goals. Jef Holove at Basis recognizes this, saying that they are not in the fitness tracking business but instead the “behavior modification business”. Successful companies will know how to marry art (customer intimacy) with science (technology innovation) and will focus on solving problems vs. just delivering devices and technology. If your goals are to lose weight, who do you trust for advice? The scrawny guy with the pocket protector who’s in the science club or the trainer from your gym? Probably the latter. On the flip side, people typically don’t go to the jock to get help on their quantum physics exam. I know I’m being stereotypical and having a little fun with both of these, but I’m making a point. People seek and trust those who have real (and sometimes perceived) credibility in the specific area they are seeking advice. This is why Fitbit is working with Torrey Birch for fashion credibility and why Basis is working with leading researchers around sleep. Likewise, companies Nike and Babolat are working with strong tech partners to help enable their tech products.
The health, fitness, and sport tech market is broad so companies should first start with identifying their prime target user and segmenting the market and products based upon that. Are they focused on the beginner? Are they more focused on health over fitness? Are they focused on a specific athlete or sport like runners, cyclists, or tri-athletes? Narrowing their focus will enable them to build clear view of their target’s needs. As an example, a regular workout enthusiast doing Crossfit to build a tone body will have different needs than person wanting to move a bit more to be healthier. A basic activity tracker that counts steps will be of little value to the first person, but is likely great fit for the general health seeker.
Once a company identifies its target user, they need to build a superior differentiated product solution that uniquely meets the user’s goals and desires through artful combination of the right technology innovation, devices, software, and services. Customer intimacy & credibility is critical for this and can be built overtime through dedicated research and demonstration of this knowledge over a sustained period or more quickly through strategic partnerships who already have credibility. There are a few companies doing this well today. Basis, as an example, focuses on users who are seeking better health 24/7. They openly admit that they are not after the fitness enthusiast so did not optimize technology to address their needs. Atlas Wearables, an Indiegogo crowd-sourced start-up that will launch their first device in fall, is conversely focused on the regular “gym rat”. They recognized that this segment is under-served today and has some clear pain points not being addressed. For these users, pedometer focused trackers provide little value. Instead, they want a simple way to track their work-outs and get coaching on proper form, a painful manual process today. Atlas wants to simplify & automate this process. MIO is another great example of focus and tight customer target. They focus on elite running/cycling/tri-athletes and more advanced fitness seekers who value interval and heart rate training (their core differentiating aspect). Their unique wrist heart rate solution solves a pain point users have today with comfort on existing chest strap solutions.
For other companies entering the market, it’s not clear they have provided solutions that address customer needs. This is why I have a lot of questions around the viability of companies like LG and Epson entering the fitness wearable market. Both companies appear that they are starting with technology solutions first and have limited to zero credibility as a brand that knows and understands health and fitness. I applaud LG’s more narrow wearable focus on a specific market like fitness (unlike Samsung’s more general purpose Galaxy Gear smartwatch looks not to a commercial success so far) and their recognition of lack of expertise in the market by attempting to provide an open platform designed to establish credibility through partners. However, I’m not sure that an open technology platform with loose partner affiliation will be enough. Customers will want more integrated solutions that marry devices with rich services. Sony ’s Core is a bit of similar approach to LG, but I do like Sony’s desire to partner with fitness companies to use their pod.
The fitness & sport wearables market seems to have reached mainstream momentum if based on products announced and shipping, but we expect to see a fallout of winners and losers in the next few years. The companies that can build a platform around helping their target customers reach their goals will win. Customer intimacy and tightly integrated technology and services that meet these needs will be ultimate winners.
You can learn more about this market by reading our report & analysis on major CES trends in the wearable and fitness/sport tech market here. We’ve cited products from 34 different companies doing fitness wearables at CES 2014.