One of the major projects on the drawing board for Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and The Woolmark Company (TWC) in 2018 will be the launch of a major northern hemisphere campaign and competition, focusing in particular on USA.
AWI CEO Stuart McCullough said USA was largely underdone, an untapped market offering huge potential for woollen product especially in the leisure wear space.
"American perception is that wool is scratchy and itchy," he said.
"It is our intention to change that perception through a two-pronged campaign of fibre awareness direct to the consumer and brand awareness.
"There are about 320 million people in the US, similar to the EU population, but if you compare wool consumption it is about 300 gram/head/year in the US versus 1 kilo/head/year in Europe," Mr McCullough said.
"We know for the US market wool must be easy care so we are taking a global approach and looking to connect through sport."
Mr McCullough said the target audience was the 25 to 35 year old bracket and the message was for natural versus recycled plastic products to wear for sport, outdoor and active leisure wear, now coined athleisure.
"In all our marketing our focus is to create a consumer culture that when they buy they are asking not just for a suit but for a woollen suit or not just for a sports garment but for a woollen sports garment," he said.
A media agency with understanding of the US market had been employed to co-ordinate the campaign and while it will include some TV, in order to control costs the major focus will be through social media, digital and viral.
Mr McCullough said partnerships with global entities had been a key way for TWC to spread the wool message at comparatively low (subsidised) cost to the organisation and it had recently signed an agreement with Adidas on December 13, last year, to partner in an innovation competition to run in conjunction with the northern hemisphere campaign.
"Adidas is already well invested in wool and its latest shoe range due for release will include one million pieces in wool," Mr McCullough said.
"Woollen sneakers are a major growth area for us.
"Once the upper section of a running shoe or sneaker had to be constructed of about 20 different pieces that were sewn together.
"Now with improved technology in knitting machines shoes can be knitted in a one pass process, making wool a popular and viable fabric option," Mr McCullough said.
The partnership with Adidas centres on a new annual competition, the Woolmark Performance Challenge.
The focus is on developing innovative product solutions for the performance industry by harnessing the unique natural properties of Australian Merino wool and will be launched on January 29 at ISPO in Munich, Germany, the world's biggest trade fair for sports and leisure wear.
The idea came to London-based TWC country manager UK and Turkey, Nigel Gosse after an AWI board meeting and a think tank in Sydney, New South Wales, in 2016 and will be co-ordinated by him out of the London office.
"We are looking for outside the box thinking, pioneering solutions and an ability to identify innovative processes to answer challenges," Mr Gosse said.
"Unlike IWP, this is not a fashion driven project, rather for any area of innovation utilising a minimum of 50 per cent Merino wool.
"We are targeting youth and in this case university students from throughout the western hemisphere and have identified about 100 renowned universities in the region to make contact with, but others are welcome."
Although they were targeting universities Mr Gosse said it was a competition for individuals and not teams.
"Students studying a wide range of specialist courses, from product design, industrial design, advanced materials and performance/product engineering, to textile futures, innovation and new applications, are invited to take part.
"The bonus is students do not have to get their idea to market, just to concept stage, ready to be advanced to market."
Mr Gosse said the entry period would open on January 29 following the launch at ISPO and close on May 25, 2018, when an influential judging panel would be engaged to select 10 finalists and ultimately a winner to be announced at ISPO in 2019.
"Performance apparel is one of the fastest growing sectors in the global textile industry, with much of this demand attributed to an emergence of new technologies, new sporting trends and a shift in people's attitude towards health and fitness," Mr Gosse said.
"We are looking to engage and inspire entrants to push these barriers further."
"This is aligned to Adidas's motto that 'through sport we have the power to change lives'.
"Adidas has tremendous global reach via its products and will use sports personalities and sports media to promote the competition," Mr Gosse said.
"We are thrilled to be partnering with such a forward thinking and influential brand.
"Through the platform of Woolmark Performance Challenge we hope to attract the attention of some of world sport's renowned testing grounds such as Formula 1, extreme surfing, America's Cup and the Clipper Round the World yacht race.
"Sports people are striving for the best in all they do, they want to eat the best food, have the best equipment and wear the best, so wool fits this desire for top quality very well."
As the competition partner, Adidas, which generated sales of 19 billion Euro in 2016 and has 60,000 employees, will have first opportunity to buy the intellectual property rights to the winning idea, giving it the pathway to commercialisation.
The winning student will receive $10,000 in prizemoney, as will their university, but more importantly be awarded a three-month paid internship to work at Adidas.
Mr Gosse said working directly with the universities is in line with AWI's education and extension strategy and will help manage costs as it would circumvent the need for a costly 'call for nominations' advertising campaign.
"We hope the lecturers at these uni's will become engaged to generate interest and help spread the word," he said.
Information will be disseminated to students via a webinar series, with each having a unique log-in password for ongoing access.
Mr Gosse said it was early days but TWC already had visions of taking the competition global next year.
"Uni students, the millenials, are a perfect group to be working with as they care about their purchasing decisions and want to feel good about them,” he said.
"As Stuart (McCullough) says they are the label turners, they want to know what the fibre is, where it is from and how it was produced.
"Consumers are demanding natural alternatives for their product and apparel needs and Australian Merino wool presents the perfect match," Mr Gosse said.