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Analysis

Lingerie brands forced to embrace new comfort zone as attitudes shift

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Lingerie may be a popular stocking filler at Christmas, but Beau Papworth has been splashing out on underwear for herself throughout the pandemic.

“I don’t spend money on train tickets and my income hasn’t changed, so I’m fine to spend on whatever I want,” said the 25-year-old Milton Keynes-based PR assistant. Yet, Ms Papworth has shifted from buying sexy lingerie sets to a focus on comfort during lockdown. And like many consumers with more disposable income, she has been shopping online and spending more. 

The $73bn global female underwear market has been a little more resilient during the pandemic than fashion generally: sales are expected to contract 13 per cent this year compared with a 16 per cent fall for the wider industry, according to Euromonitor. But there are fears that online sales are plateauing and that the pandemic-induced economic recession will crimp growth.

As an essential category, underwear has a high replacement rate but the pandemic has hastened shifts in buying habits and tastes that had left brands from US lingerie group Victoria’s Secret to UK high street chain Marks and Spencer struggling before coronavirus. 

Victoria’s Secret 2018 fashion show featuring model Bella Hadid was to be its last after a rethink of its marketing strategies
The Victoria’s Secret 2018 fashion show featuring model Bella Hadid was to be its last after a rethink of its marketing strategies © David Fisher/Shutterstock

Victoria’s Secret has suffered from declining sales and brand value for years, dragging down the share price of its owner L Brands, which in May abandoned efforts to take it private. During the pandemic it closed 250 stores permanently. 

The globally renowned group describes itself as “the sexiest brand in the world” and early in the pandemic there was a surge in sexy lingerie purchases as people looked to indulge but that waned quickly, according to Euromonitor.

Soozie Jenkinson, head of design at M&S, the UK’s leading seller of ladies underwear with a 27 per cent share, said the shift was clear: “The big trends we have seen growing in importance for years have accelerated from March onwards, and the main one is comfort.”

M&S, which last month posted its first half-year loss in its 136-year history, noted a 157 per cent rise in sports bra online sales in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period last year, as women sought more relaxed styles. With stores closed, sales shifted online. 

Bar chart of Annual revenues ($bn) showing Underwear sales had been growing steadily before the pandemic

Analysts stress, however, that the overall increase in digital spending during the pandemic has not been strong enough to offset the decline in bricks-and-mortar revenues. McKinsey does not expect lingerie sales to return to 2019 levels until the end of 2022, or early 2023.

Beyond the pandemic, analysts point to wider challenges for the sector. Department stores, a traditional place to buy branded lingerie, are struggling and attitudes to underwear styles and marketing have shifted. McKinsey analyst Achim Berg said brands attached to sexy lingerie had seen their appeal dissipate.

“We’ve moved away from the kind of bombshell focus of previous decades. Lingerie has democratised quite a bit,” he added.

Victoria’s Secret has struggled to adapt. In 2018, its marketing chief stepped down after a backlash over his comments that transgender models had no place in the brand’s iconic supermodel-studded fashion shows. A year later, the shows were scrapped as the lingerie group sought to address criticism its marketing objectified women and lacked diversity.

Then in February, L Brands’ billionaire founder Les Wexner stepped down as chairman amid concerns about the impact on the company’s reputation over his ties to late convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein and reports of widespread bullying and harassment at Victoria’s Secret.

Savage X Fenty has been lauded for promoting body positivity and inclusivity, with a broad range of sizes © Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images/Savage X Fenty

The lingerie group has overhauled its management, recently appointing a new chief executive — its second in two years — and creative director. In September it agreed to a deal for a UK joint franchise with Next after its business there was put into administration

Next, which has also signed a three-year tie-up with upmarket UK brand Ted Baker, has weathered the pandemic relatively well due to its more advanced ecommerce operations — an area its partners aim to exploit.

Collaborations with small independent brands allow large players to reach younger, more diverse audiences. “Large companies have brand recognition,” said Mr Berg. “Now they want to expand their third-party offering to tap into a stream of innovations.”

Digital sales and sexual wellbeing will be a focus for Ann Summers in the UK. The group, known for selling sex toys alongside lingerie, launched an insolvency process this month and while it plans no store closures it is stepping up efforts to reach digital consumers. It said online interest for its “sexpertise” guides had increased eleven-fold during the pandemic.

Savage X Fenty, the mid-range lingerie brand launched by singer Rihanna in 2018, has centred its efforts on online. It has built marketing around social media and focused sales on digital platforms such as Amazon. It has also been at the forefront of promoting body positivity and inclusivity, with a broad range of sizes for all body types — another core demand from consumers. 

Analysts say the shifts to comfort and inclusivity, as well as sustainability, will endure. But they do expect a jump in sales of sexier lingerie when socialising and dating fully resume.

“Once the pandemic has come to an end,” said Mr Berg, “there will be a lot of partying, meaning a lot of occasions to buy lingerie.”



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Analysis

Ronaldo’s Coke moment signals shifting balance of power in sport

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s rejection of strategically placed Coca-Cola bottles at a press conference at the Euro 2020 football championships this week has left sponsors and tournament organisers scrambling to limit the damage on endorsement deals.

The gesture by the Portugal star, who on Monday picked up a bottle of water saying “Agua . . . no Coca-Cola”, was mimicked by other players including Italian midfielder Manuel Locatelli, while France’s Paul Pogba removed a Heineken bottle during media commitments later in the week.

Uefa, European football’s governing body, has contacted national federations to tell teams to avoid actions that could affect tournament sponsors, each of which have paid about $30m to endorse the competition.

But there are no specific rules to police how players must discuss the corporate partners for the Euros. And there has been no reprimand of Ronaldo who, according to one senior European football executive “is so powerful, no one can tell him what to do”. 

That admission is a reflection of the changing power balance at the top of the world’s biggest sports. Highly paid athletes appear more willing to challenge the media and marketing deals struck by the leagues and competitions they play in, if those financial imperatives clash with their own carefully tailored corporate image or sincerely-held beliefs. 

Ronaldo’s viral moment led some media outlets to claim that the incident wiped billions from the market value of the US drinks company. But Coca-Cola’s shares slipped about 1 per cent in morning trade before the press conference even began, a drop that accounts for most of the day’s losses. 

The stock has fallen steadily over the days since, though it managed to recover some ground on Thursday, closing higher for the day at $54.95 .

While Locatelli appeared to be joking by following Ronaldo’s lead, Pogba is a practising Muslim who on Tuesday removed a Heineken bottle placed in front of him at a post-match press conference, though the item was from the Dutch brewers’ line of alcohol-free beers. 

Muslim athletes have cited their religious beliefs for declining to take part in marketing activities with alcoholic drinks brands and gambling groups. “We fully respect everyone’s decision when it comes to their beverage of choice,” said Heineken. 

Last month, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open tournament rather than take part in compulsory press conferences, suggesting they were damaging to her mental health. Post-match media access to players is considered key to the value of television deals for tournaments. 

Ronaldo is known for sharing pictures of his intense training regime on Instagram, where he has roughly 300m followers, and has expressed disapproval at his children imbibing fizzy drinks.

Many of his sponsorship deals fit this image of healthy living, such as with sportswear group Nike and nutrition company Herballife — endorsements that have helped him become the first footballer to earn $1bn over his career, according to Forbes. 

However, the player has also previously appeared in adverts for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“I have to say there was a collective raise of eyebrows in the industry about Ronaldo, who has a long record of brand endorsements, some of which don’t fit with his apparent approach to life,” said Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. “There was a lot of cynicism.”

Ricardo Fort, a former Coca-Cola executive who previously spent nearly two decades managing the company’s sports partnerships, said the incident was an example of rights infringement, with the sponsor potentially entitled to damages. 

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open rather than take part in compulsory press conferences © Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty

“Sometimes [rights infringement] can come from a competitor ambushing the event, sometimes it can come from the organisers, sometimes it’s a player,” he said. “In general this is a big distraction for the event and the companies which invested a lot.” 

Though using bottles as product placement is a contractual obligation of the deals that Uefa has struck with Coca-Cola and Heineken, neither brand has demanded compensation, according to a person close to the discussions. 

Uefa said players “can choose their preferred beverage” at the tournament. Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment. 

England manager Gareth Southgate defended corporate sponsorships on Thursday, saying “their money at all levels helps sport to function”. That stance was supported by his team’s captain, Harry Kane, who added: “Obviously the sponsors are entitled to do what they want if they’ve paid the money to do so.”

There have long been precedents for athletes favouring their own marketing deals over the groups they play for. At the 1992 Olympics, US basketball player Michael Jordan opted to cover the Reebok logo on his official uniform with a strategically draped American flag, a gesture of loyalty to Jordan’s personal sponsor, Nike.

But more recently athletes have gained greater control over which brands they are associated with, thanks in large part to their direct link to fans through social media. 

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Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, has accrued a suite of her own sponsors and a large social media following thanks to her brilliant playing record, but also frank advocacy for racial injustice and mental health. 

This breed of independent-minded athletes at the top of sport is forcing a rethink of the longstanding marketing strategies adopted by competition organisers and their sponsors.

“There’s still going to be a billion servings of Coke poured today, tomorrow and the next way,” said Crow. “But the question is: is there a better way of doing it? I suspect there is a better way to get its message across than plonking bottles in front of athletes.”



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Analysis

Biden’s climate agenda bogged down in divided Congress

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President Joe Biden arrives back in the US this week after a foreign tour with a recurring theme: fighting climate change.

But he returns to a Washington where his own party feels increasing anxiety that his administration’s climate agenda will fall short at home.

Bipartisan talks over Biden’s infrastructure proposals — which would spend billions on crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels, as well as record sums on clean energy — are flagging. While Republicans and moderate Democrats try to scale down the package, progressives warn they will withhold support if climate provisions are stripped out. 

“If there is no climate, there is no deal,” Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, said this week. “When the ship sails on infrastructure, energy infrastructure cannot be left on the docks.”

Democratic party leaders are now exploring another path to enact Biden’s climate plan. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, on Wednesday met his members on the budget committee to find ways to fund greener electricity, zero-carbon vehicles and manufacturing and farming that keeps many climate goals intact.

While potentially more viable, the strategy could also weaken Biden’s climate policies. Legislation would be shoehorned into the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — a special procedure that enables Democrats to use their slim majority but constrains the scope of what can pass.

Column chart of US generation by fuel source, in a scenario where emissions fall 90 per cent by 2040 (TWh) showing Cutting carbon from electric sector would displace coal and gas

Biden has pledged for the US to cut emissions by at least 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. He is aiming for carbon-free electricity by 2035 — a target that would mean none generated by burning coal or natural gas unless their emissions can be captured.

These lofty climate policies were a centrepiece of Biden’s diplomacy on his first international trip. He told G7 leaders in Cornwall that global warming is “the existential problem facing humanity”, and helped launch a $2bn fund for countries to shift away from coal.

In Washington, however, Democrats look unlikely to pass ambitious climate legislation with the support of Republicans given the 50-50 party split in the Senate and rules requiring at least 60 votes to move most important bills.

“I think there is reason to be concerned,” said Dan Lashof, US director of the World Resources Institute, referring to the fate of climate proposals in Congress.

“It was always going to be a challenge, to get investment at the scale that is needed, to turn the corner on climate change,” he added. “Getting very substantial investments in infrastructure and clean energy technologies is crucial to reaching the US emissions targets.”

The reconciliation process proposed by Schumer requires a simple majority vote, but rules limit it to tax and spending measures. Far-reaching initiatives to drive down the US’s 6.5bn tonnes of annual carbon emissions would be in jeopardy.

Using reconciliation would make it hard to establish a “clean electricity standard,” a core part of Biden’s plans to tackle emissions. The standard would set ever-stricter emissions targets for electric utilities, which are the source of a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The clean electricity standard is a much harder provision to enact through reconciliation and the reason is pretty simple: it’s a standard,” said Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Forcing the square peg of a clean electricity standard into the round opening of the reconciliation process will be very difficult.”

One workaround under discussion among Democrats is to pay incentives for clean electricity, achieving some of the goals of the electricity standard while fitting within the guidelines of reconciliation.

“It would involve the federal government becoming a partner in the transition, helping utilities that are making progress at the pace and scale necessary with financial investments,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Other parts of the Biden climate agenda — including expanding tax credits for wind and solar power and energy storage and creating a credit for power transmission lines — would be more straightforward under the reconciliation process. Policies that do not depend on legislation, such as vehicle emissions rules, can be directly imposed by the Biden administration and are expected soon.

Adding urgency to the legislative push are the midterm elections in 2022, when Democrats risk losing control of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

“The rest of the world is intimately familiar with midterm elections and how the US Senate works, because they are concerned that the domestic delivery of the climate promises is imperilled by the toxic politics here,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. 

Republicans have argued that the infrastructure proposals should focus more on roads, bridges, and construction projects and objected to provisions that would subsidise electric cars and support non-fossil energy. 

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Meanwhile, not all Democratic senators are aligned. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a coal-producing state, is likely to have a decisive influence on the shape of any climate proposals as his vote would be needed to pass bipartisan or reconciliation bills.

Energy experts acknowledge that achieving zero-carbon electricity by 2035 would be daunting even if a clean electricity standard was to pass, because of an ageing US grid. 

Patrick Luckow, analyst at IHS Markit, expects power demand to rapidly increase over the next decade as more vehicles and home heating systems run on electricity. “When you are adding renewable energy and getting rid of fossil fuels, there is demand growth as well, which makes it more challenging,” he said.

Democrats say Biden needs a win on climate for political reasons as much as environmental ones. “The Democrats can’t risk the failure of Biden’s climate and economic policy. It would cripple the president,” Bledsoe said.



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Analysis

Mexico enjoys break from economic gloom with the help of Biden

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Business gloom has been so pervasive in Mexico since Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency in 2018 on a strident anti-establishment platform that a recent burst of optimism about the country’s growth prospects feels like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds.

Last October, the IMF was forecasting that Mexico would grow just 3.5 per cent in 2021 after shrinking a seasonally adjusted 8.5 per cent last year during the pandemic. Yet as the economy rapidly opens up, coronavirus infections remain low and the effects of the giant US stimulus ripple across the border, many economists and bankers here now see Mexico expanding almost twice as fast. 

“The combination of continued reopening with strong remittances and a US-led global recovery has allowed Mexico to close the gap with other Latin American economies, outperforming all of them in the first half of 2021,” said Marcos Casarín, chief economist for the region at Oxford Economics. The consultancy’s recovery tracker shows Mexico is returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity more quickly than any other Latin American country.

“Mexico will grow 6.0 per cent this year and it could be higher,” said former finance minister and academic Carlos Urzúa, citing the spillover effects of US fiscal stimulus and increased remittances from Mexicans working across the border. These could reach $55bn this year and are “much more important than oil”, he added.

But few believe this year’s US-inspired growth spurt heralds a bright new dawn for Mexico. The expansion, bankers and economists say, is almost entirely thanks to President Joe Biden’s policies, rather than López Obrador’s. The biggest beneficiaries are Mexico’s export-oriented manufacturing companies in the north of the country and the tourism industry, while firms servicing the domestic market struggle with depressed demand.

“Mexico will grow 6 per cent this year whether it likes it or not, dragged along by the US,” said one dealmaker who runs an investment fund in the country. “It will grow quite well in 2022 also. That’s not the point. What matters is what happens after 2023.”

Here the picture is much less sunny. A near-universal complaint in the business community is that López Obrador’s hostile rhetoric, constant attacks on regulators and the judiciary, his unpredictable policy announcements and preference for state-owned companies have scared away the foreign money that should be coming to Mexico to take advantage of preferential access under the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement.

“The ritual of bringing the global CEO to Mexico to announce a new investment is over,” said one leading member of the international business community. “There is a pause. Nobody is leaving the country but nobody is proposing incremental investment either.”

The example cited most often as deterring investors is the energy sector, where López Obrador is attempting to reverse an opening to private money begun under his predecessor and revert to a state-run fossil fuelled model, throttling a once-promising renewable energy boom in the process.

“The problem is investment and the issue is medium-term and long-term,” said Gerardo Esquivel, deputy governor of the central bank. “It’s been stagnant since 2015-16.”

Urzúa said that public investment would be only 2.7 per cent of gross domestic product this year, barely more than half the level it should run at. Much of the spending is directed towards López Obrador’s pet projects, which include a new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco and a new tourist railway around the Yucatán peninsula.

Despite his government’s focus on social programmes to help the poor, López Obrador stands out from other populists for his stubborn refusal to increase borrowing to allow more spending. Most economists here do not believe that his decision last week to switch finance minister and appoint longtime ally Rogelio Ramírez de la O, 72, will change this.

Those close to the president say his aversion to debt stems from a conviction that the Mexican governments he admires most in the 1960s and 1970s were crippled by excessive borrowing. “Amlo turns into a panther when you suggest that he should take on more debt,” said one former minister. “It’s simply not something you can discuss. He will not spend.”

Even amid the pandemic, López Obrador was one of the very few presidents in the world to reject extra borrowing to alleviate suffering, despite the fact that Mexico had the fiscal space to do so. Critics dubbed his policies “austericide”. And while public investment remains weak, the president does little to encourage the private sector to take up the slack.

“López Obrador must promote private sector investment,” said the CEO of one Mexican bank, adding that the private sector accounted for 86 per cent of Mexico’s total investment. “There is no way to grow without private investment. “This rejection of private investment has to stop.”

And as for Mexico’s recovery: “To grow 6 per cent this year and 3.5 next year is not magic, it is inertia.”



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