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Victoria’s Secret sells women’s underwear, but has been marketing to men

Lingerie executives say women are finally getting the performance-focused underwear and advertising that men have

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By Tonya Garcia, MarketWatch

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Victoria’s Secret very-sexy reputation isn’t resonating with women as much as marketing focused on performance and comfort.

Victoria’s Secret sells women’s underwear, but the target demographic for its marketing is men.

The L Brands Inc.   lingerie chain has faced a host of problems in recent quarters that are affecting sales and same-store sales. It’s also facing increased competition from large companies like American Eagle Outfitters Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/209429711/composite AEO -0.88%   Aerie brand and Urban Outfitters Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208403734/composite URBN +0.15%  , and changing tastes, with bralettes coming into fashion.

In recent weeks, L Brands has cut its full-year guidance and has announced that it will shutter its luxury department store chain, Henri Bendel, including the website.

MarketWatch reached out to L Brands for comment, and will update this story with any response.

Shares are down nearly 51% for the year so far while the SPDR S&P Retail ETF /zigman2/quotes/206947004/composite XRT +1.61%   has gained 13.8%, the Amplify Online Retail ETF /zigman2/quotes/206522380/composite IBUY +0.95%   has gained 29.6%, and the S&P 500 index /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +0.02%   has rallied 8.6%.

Read: Henri Bendel closure a loss for shoppers but could drive gains at L Brands

Executives from online women’s underwear sellers that MarketWatch spoke with say they are finding success and snapping up share with a different approach: offering women product benefits and marketing messages that have been part of the men’s underwear business for ages. Comfort and performance are at the heart of what these companies are selling, and the message resonates with modern, busy women of all shapes and sizes.

Younger women, they say, are opening the door to this new way of selling women’s underwear.

“When you look at Victoria’s Secret marketing, they continue to do the runway show,” said Catalina Girald, founder of Naja, a socially-conscious lingerie brand aimed at millennials. The Victoria’s Secret Runway Show used to be marketing gold for the brand. Lately, ratings have slipped.

“That’s not what the customer wants to see,” said Girald. “If you go back, underwear was a functional garment. It was meant to hold you up. It wasn’t meant to be a sexual thing.”

Naja is one of a number of women’s underwear brands that have launched in recent years. It shares a few features with other companies that have popped up: they are run by women (L Brands’ CEO is a man, Leslie Wexner), they emphasize inclusion in their sizing and marketing, and they treat women’s underwear as a personal, everyday fashion issue rather than just a tool of seduction.

Girald says “performance-oriented” items made with cotton and synthetic fibers are on-trend as they provide sweat-wicking and structure without the use of underwires.

“We’ve seen a sharp drop in thong sales,” she said, noting that they’re worn to eliminate panty lines, but also because they’re sexy. “We’ve taken them off the site. What most women want today is comfort.”

See: Why did CBS Chairman Les Moonves get such a face-saving #MeToo exit, and others didn’t?

Trend experts at WGSN back up what Girald and others in the industry are saying. They identify two key movements impacting the lingerie business: comfort and body positivity.

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