INTERVIEW: Speedo president David Robinson

Speedo International president David Robinson talks exclusively to Kat Slowe on the company’s plans to dominate retail and its success in surfing the waves of economic adversity.

It is not easy being a woman. But, there are some moments, in particular, which can seriously drive you to question your membership of the female gender. Buying a swimsuit is more often than not one of those moments. Luckily, the solution to this appears ready at hand – at least, according to Speedo International president David Robinson.

Speedo is a company that needs very little introduction. After all, the swim brand celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2008, is currently sold in 175 countries around the globe and its brand ambassadors include multi-Olympic gold medallist swimmer Michael Phelps and Great Britain’s own golden girl of the pool, Rebecca Adlington.

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“Even people with the most fantastic bodies don’t necessarily relish the process of selecting and purchasing swimwear,” says Robinson.

“It’s an emotive experience because whatever style you purchase you know it will entail showing a certain amount of bare flesh in public. It’s a much more daunting prospect than buying underwear which, although intimate, is worn under your clothes, making it much more likely to deliver a ‘feel good’ factor.

“We do lots of consumer research,” Robinson elaborates. “Often people say to us they haven’t been on a beach holiday for two or three years, because their fear of having to wear a swimsuit is so high.”

Robinson is currently on a mission. He is working with Speedo’s stockists to improve the experience of shoppers everywhere and help women feel more comfortable buying their swimwear.

“The whole swimwear purchase and product experience needs to be reviewed,” he says. “We believe that we can help solve a lot of the problems encountered by the public, especially women, when they buy swimwear by ensuring they feel better about themselves… and we can do this by making sure they have the right swimsuit.”

Robinson is also committed to investing for the future, which is why one of Speedo’s recent key investments is a 3D body scanner. This state-of-the-art piece of equipment is designed to map the body’s shape. Speedo has scanned thousands of women’s body shapes, from professional athletes to ordinary women, and it is this invaluable on-going data source gathered by the company that informs Speedo’s swimwear design and production process. According to Robinson, when a woman is a certain body type and she goes up a size, as that size increases – even within a single body shape – the way fat is distributed in her body also changes.

“And so, by utilising the body scanner, we start to build up a substantial degree of insight and knowledge and get to properly understand the human body, and its particular patterns of shapes and scales” he explains.

But, it is not purely through these physical investigations that Robinson seeks to build up his knowledge of what women want. He also regularly visits the brand’s markets around the world in order to gain feedback and consumer insight.

“I spend about a third of the year travelling,” he says. “I will visit the key markets in the world and I will go and visit swimming pools, and see people swim. I will also go to beach locations, see what people are wearing and just try to understand the market place at grass roots level, globally.”

Robinson is an avid swimmer, who enjoys leisure time in the pool and is fully aware of the health and fitness benefits swimming regularly brings. In this, he is like many of those in the sector, which Speedo is now attempting to dominate.

Though known around the world for its performance swimwear, the company is now looking to expand its presence in the health and wellbeing sector. It is a challenging prospect in the current economic climate, at a time when consumers are tightening their belts and are possibly less likely to spend on leisure items. But, it is a challenge that Robinson is more than willing to take on and he has already met with a significant degree of success.

“I can say our business in the UK, particularly in health and wellbeing with SpeedoSculpture, is looking very healthy,” Robinson says, “and that is in the context of the UK market being very difficult at the present time.

“What’s more, projected growth for the UK swimwear market over the next five years indicates it is not a fast growing market, but we have already secured high double digit growth for SpeedoSculpture and are confident this growth can continue through taking share from other swimwear brands. The consumer is choosing our products, because they work.”

And, it is not only in the UK that Speedo is reporting growth. The global brand is bucking the trend by achieving profits within some of the world’s most hard hit markets. Robinson claims that in many places around the world, swimming is not a prohibitively high cost sport, so despite the economic ‘squeeze’ swimming remains accessible for most people.

“You can pretty much go round the world and everybody knows who Speedo is,” he says. “But, there is obviously an economic challenge and this varies around the global markets.

“Being a global business also means we are reasonably resilient and not over-exposed in any one particular market. For example, in places like Asia or South America, our business is growing tremendously well.

“And, whilst Europe is particularly challenging at the moment, it is not all doom and gloom. Spain has unemployment of 20 percent, but against this bleak outlook we have managed to grow our business by five percent, because we have great partners and great products.”

In the immediate future, at least, Robinson appears truly optimistic that the benefits of ‘high quality swimwear’ will continue to outweigh any economic cost. Following the old adage that every cloud has a silver lining – or every economic downturn an opportunity – he claims that the current situation could even act to push people towards the sport.

“Fundamentally, what are the benefits of swimming?” he asks. “It helps you to feel healthy, it helps you to de-stress and feel good about yourself, and it creates a sense of escape from the trials and tribulations of your everyday life. Now, if you consider this against the backdrop of the current economic situation, consumers need the reliefs that swimming can provide even more than ever.”

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