10 Questions for New Balance’s Wellness Exec

At New Balance, wellness goes way beyond toning.

After launching the Rock & Tone collection of rocker-bottom shoes last April and then debuting True Balance, a lower-profile balance board-inspired toning line, three months later, the Boston-based company is taking a broad, multicategory approach to the wellness category.

Under Wendy Yang, a footwear industry veteran who came on board in March 2009, New Balance’s wellness division covers toning, as well as its sizable walking-shoe line and select product from other categories. For example, this spring, the barefoot-inspired Minimus collection will include one wellness style.

For fall ’11, the brand will update True Balance and Rock & Tone styles with new uppers, make small revisions to the True Balance outsole and continue to introduce new technology to the fitness walking category, as well as roll out more wellness styles from Minimus.

But even bigger changes will happen internally, said Yang. The company has a vision for a comprehensive collection of footwear that all sits under the “wellness” umbrella and will address a broader group of customers, including a line of shoes for spring ’12 that Wang describes as “age defying.”

Here, Yang talks to Footwear News about the future of toning and wellness and why women are driving the category.

 


1. New Balance’s wellness division includes more than just toning product. So what does the company consider to be “wellness?”

WY: We define wellness very broadly because that’s how the consumer defines it. Wellness is a way of life, and it incorporates the way [the consumer] exercises but also the way she eats, maintains her relationships and her personal finances — just about every aspect of her life. Wellness doesn’t just equal toning to us, and toning doesn’t just equal big, thick, heavy rocker-bottom sneakers either. It includes our walking line from a product perspective, but also, you could argue, running, cross-training and outdoor. Because these are women who get their wellness and get their physical activity in a number of different ways.

2. Does that create a gray area when defining wellness?

WY: For women, it’s not that gray, [even if in the] industry everyone is defining it a little bit differently. Women tend to cross-train, and they might run a little bit, take a spin class, do yoga and go for walks on the weekends. So that’s why we talk to women about this umbrella of activity — that’s how she defines wellness.

3. There have been signs that the consumer appetite for the toning category may be slowing down. Do you see that?

WY: The consumer desire for toning’s benefits are here to stay. Just like women will continue to buy wrinkle cream, they’re going to continue to buy toning shoes. We know that the toning category is going to right size, and that’s the $64,000 question — well, much more money than that — what is the actual size that it will be? But there is a business there to be had.

4. How big can that business be?

WY: In large part, it is dependent on how brands like us and our retailers react. We tend as an industry to overcorrect, so I would stop short of giving you a number. But within the next 12 months, it will shake out, and it will be a business that is here to stay. But what this has showed us is that people are very interested in the notion of body improvement.

5. Men’s product in the Rock & Tone and True Balance collections launched in the fourth quarter. Could the men’s business develop into something substantial?

WY: Wellness is female-led; in the home, it tends to be the woman who’s driving those purchases. But certainly, growing with men, especially with younger guys, is this notion of living a well-balanced life. We didn’t put the marketing effort behind it, but we know there is a consumer out there who is interested.

6. As you look to 2011, how will you evolve the category as a whole?

WY: Right now, in our product portfolio, we have a range of walking shoes that are a little bit more traditional, [with] fitness walking and health walking, and then we have toning. And with the launch of Minimus, we get into this natural motion part of the portfolio. But going forward in 2011, we’ll divide the business into two categories: walking and body improvement. Under body improvement, we have three different classifications: toning, natural motion and, in 2012, we’ll launch products in the “age-defying” space.

7. What do you mean by “age defying?”

WY: With the population aging as it is, there’s a real opportunity to deliver products [focused here]. I don’t have the exact shoes to share with you just yet, but we think it’s a space that New Balance can own and that deserves our attention.

8. Are you trying to grow wellness in the children’s market?

WY: We’ll have a big initiative in lightweight running in 2011 for kids, as well as kids-only styles. But for kids, it doesn’t need to be as sports-specific, it’s about getting them out to play and to move and to run and to go.

9. Any upcoming toning products for kids?

WY: Not from us, no.

10. Is there an opportunity to speak to younger customers?

WY: Absolutely, and I’m speaking from a personal perspective. I have three daughters — 12, 15 and 18. My 15- and 18-year-old are in high school, and they’re so much more mindful of [fitness and health] than I was at their age. [Those topics are] talked about in school, and we take fitness classes together and try different things. It’s becoming a way of life at a much younger age, fortunately.

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