Second Annual L.E.K. Consulting Brand Heat Index Ranks the Most Popular Brands Based on Their Growth Trajectory with U.S. Consumers
BOSTON, MA (March 20, 2023) – Shopping attitudes and behaviors vary, sometimes widely, by generation – but each generation still plays a key influence role, whether it’s over style and fashion or spending power.
“In today’s marketplace, which seems to get more crowded by the day, it’s critical for brands to understand what’s resonating with each generation. This can help brands build the best strategies to cut through the noise and reach their target audience,” said Jon Weber, L.E.K. Managing Director and co-author of the 2023 U.S. Footwear and Apparel Brand Heat Index.
To help brands and retailers identify which brands are gaining popularity – or brand “heat” –global strategy consultancy L.E.K. Consulting surveyed nearly 4,000 U.S. consumers between the ages of 14 and 55. Each brand then earns a heat score on a scale of 0-100 – the higher the score, the hotter the brand. The second annual Brand Heat Index ranks brands by generation – Gen Z, millennial and Gen X – across four product categories in men’s and women’s apparel and footwear.
“While this year’s Brand Heat Index revealed several significant consumer trends, it’s worth noting that legacy brands that have been able to provide a consistent message and experience over time, like Nike and Columbia, have maintained their strong overall performance – but consumers are also getting excited about up-and-coming brands, like HEYDUDE, HOKA and On,” said Laura Brookhiser, L.E.K. Managing Director and survey report co-author.
“Not surprisingly, younger consumers prefer newness and fast fashion, like SHEIN, ZARA and Lulus, while older ones are more likely to place a greater emphasis on comfort and quality, like Patagonia,” added Brookhiser.
So how do brands stack up?
Footwear consumers are increasingly demanding both style and comfort, indicating that brands need to differentiate themselves when it comes to both fashion and function. In the meantime, distinctive silhouettes continue to help footwear brands stand out, such as Crocs, HEYDUDE, UGG, Vans and BIRKENSTOCK.
When it comes to specific product categories:
Athletic: Nine out of the top 10 brands are the same for both men and women, although the relative ranking varies widely between the two group. For women, On surpassed last year’s top-ranked brand, Nike, primarily due to popularity with millennials and Gen X. HOKA climbed the rankings, past Nike among Gen Xers. Gen Z favors brands like Nike, Brand Jordan and Adidas over technically focused running brands.
For men, Nike and Brand Jordan remain the two hottest brands overall, followed by Adidas and Under Armour. Similar to women, younger consumers tended to value attributes like style and appearance. Gen X ranked HOKA more highly than other generations, largely due to perceived quality and durability. On, by contrast, appears to be gaining less popularity for men than for women, although it is in the top 10 for all but Gen Z men.
Casual: The hottest brands here have distinctive and identifiable silhouettes. HEYDUDE dominates in popularity for both men and women, while Crocs, Vans, Converse, UGG and Allbirds also appear in the top 10 for both genders. On the women’s side, the top two brands — HEYDUDE and Crocs — are frequently cited for their comfort and rank in the top five for all generations, including the top two spots for Gen Z and millennials. HEYDUDE is a notable standout with Gen Xers, earning nearly double the score of the second-place brand, Kizik. UGG, BIRKENSTOCK and Dr. Martens remain in the top 10, although all three brands perform most strongly with Gen Z.
For men, HEYDUDE tops the list across all generations. While other brands are close behind for Gen Z, there is a larger gap to the number two brand for millennials (Crocs) and Gen X (Skechers). Vans, Timberland and Converse also rank highly overall, and perform similarly across generations.
Outdoor: The range of brand performance is quite large for this category, with notably low consumer enthusiasm beyond the leading players. For women, UGG is the hottest brand across generations, while Columbia and Hunter boots round out the overall top three but are more popular among Gen Z and millennials. Younger consumers also show a preference for outdoor/active sandal brands, like Chaco, REEF and Teva. SOREL and BEARPAW are second and third for Gen X but have slipped in the rankings for younger consumers relative to last year.
On the men’s side, Timberland and Columbia are the top two brands overall and across generations. Relative to last year, Arc’teryx and KEEN dropped significantly in the rankings, particularly among Gen X who previously had them in the top two spots. Conversely, Oakley gained significant popularity with Gen X, jumping from number eight to number three.
Dress: The top brands vary significantly across genders, with only Steve Madden appearing for both men and women. For women, the leading players are consistent with last year – Steve Madden, Coach and Michael Kors, followed by established brands like kate spade, Calvin Klein and Sam Edelman. Style and overall brand appeal are the most commonly cited factors behind popularity.
For men, preferences vary across generations. Cole Haan and Ferragamo are the hottest brands overall. The biggest shifts from last year’s rankings are the drop for HUGO BOSS from the top spot to number eight and the addition of several new brands, such as Jack Erwin, Sandro Moscoloni and Wolf and Shepherd, due to popularity with millennials.
“Gen Z men have less engagement with the dress footwear category than they do with others, as they’re materially aware of just 10 brands. This is likely a result of the casualization trend, which is popular among younger generations and has been amplified by the shift to work from home,” said Chris Randall, L.E.K. Managing Director and co-author of the survey report.
While many of the top apparel brands vary depending on the gender of the consumer, some leading players are effectively able to serve both markets, particularly in the athletic and outdoor categories, such as lululemon, Gymshark, The North Face and Patagonia.
For specific product categories:
Athletic: There’s meaningful overlap in the leading brands across genders, with Nike in the top spot for both men and women, and lululemon, Gymshark, Under Armour, Champion and Adidas in both top 10 lists. For women, a range of athleisure brands fill out the list, such as alo, Fabletics, Vuori and Alphalete. Notably, alo only appeared on Gen X’s list year, but is a top player across all generation this year, as its premium positioning and social media presence were key reasons for its jump in popularity. For men, there’s more of a focus on larger athletic brand veterans, like Adidas, although there have been new smaller brands added to the list, like 32 Degrees and Rhoback. Preferences vary widely for men across generations.
Casual: For women, fast fashion labels continued their strong performance, with SHEIN again number one. Fashion Nova, PrettyLittleThing and ZARA ranked highly while legacy shapewear brands SKIMS and SPANX are new additions to the top 10. Aritzia has shown a strong growth trajectory, ranking five overall and in the top 10 for Gen Z and millennials. Traditional brands, like Old Navy and Levi’s, perform the best among Gen X.
For men, workwear brands are gaining popularity – consistent with the continued casualization trend. Carhartt, Levi’s, Duluth Trading Company, Dickies and Wrangler all show up in the Top 10 across generations. Fast fashion brand SHEIN is number two overall and tops for Gen Z. H&M and ZARA are also in the top 10 for Gen Z.
Outdoor: Stalwart brands The North Face, Columbia and Patagonia are the top three across generations and genders, in various permutations. For women, Cotopaxi is popular with Gen Z and millennials, while Fjällräven is gaining popularity with Gen X. For men, fishing lifestyle brand Huk has moved to number five from 10 last year. Arc’teryx broke into the top 10 in all age groups after not appearing last year.
Dress: Calvin Klein and Michael Kors are among the leaders for both women and men, while the remaining brands differ. For women, dress apparel is a mix of specialty retail, DTC and wholesale brands. Reformation and lulus have shown the most growth overall and perform strongest among Gen Z and millennials. For men, Emporio Armani, Ministry of Supply and Banana Republic improved their brand heat scores the most relative to last year, while HUGO BOSS fell out of the top 10. Bonobos and Suitsupply performed well with millennials and Gen Z, while Indochino is gaining popularity with Gen X.
“Material differences in brand momentum can exist just below the surface and consumer sentiment can change quickly. Generational differences in brand rankings point to the importance of recognizing that not all consumers are the same. It takes deep understanding and tailored strategies for brands to succeed and win. The latest L.E.K. Brand Heat Index shows us that consumers are increasingly willing to embrace new and innovative brands beyond legacy players,” said Weber.
For the full sets of rankings by generation and product category, please see the report here.
About L.E.K. Consulting
We’re L.E.K. Consulting, a global strategy consultancy working with business leaders to seize competitive advantage and amplify growth. Our insights are catalysts that reshape the trajectory of our clients’ businesses, uncovering opportunities and empowering them to master their moments of truth. Since 1983, our worldwide practice — spanning the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe — has guided leaders across all industries, from global corporations to emerging entrepreneurial businesses and private equity investors. Looking for more? Visit www.lek.com.