Milestone: Redefining the Brooks Product

Milestone: Redefining the Brooks Product
The fall '14 Glycerin shoe.

Brooks Running Co. is taking the idea of individuality to heart.

After watching the running category vacillate between barefoot minimalism and hyper-cushioning, the firm has adopted a to-each-his-own philosophy that will be reflected in an array of sneakers that suit different athletes.

“We want to deliver on running experiences, which I believe is going to become increasingly important,” said Carson Caprera, senior footwear product line manager for the brand.

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He compared the running industry to snowboarding, where equipment is developed to provide a specific, desired interaction with the environment. “Running is very similar in terms of how people can approach it,” he said, “and it hasn’t necessarily been approached that way [by brands] in the past.”

That marks an evolution for Brooks, which in the past has had dominance in the motion-control category, with sneakers designed to help correct flaws in a runner’s gait.

Now, an ongoing biomechanical study is fueling Brooks’ new development strategy. The study, begun four years ago with doctors Gert-Peter Brüggemann and Joseph Hamill, has inspired a viewpoint that questions more than over- or underpronation.

Its theory, dubbed Stride Signature, posits that runners have their own perfect form or alignment, and the key to improving performance is to support that form, not to alter it.

“If your knee wants to move a certain way, then we need to allow the body to accommodate that the best we can,” said Caprera. “By doing that, we believe we can reduce the amount of fatigue on runners, we can reduce the risk of injury. And as a result, you’re going to be more efficient and running is going to be more comfortable.”

Elements of Stride Signature already are being implemented in Brooks’ line, including the spring ’14 Transcend style, which debuted the firm’s Guide Rail technology.

The brand also relies on a new customer-focused approach to data.

Pete Humphrey, VP of research and development for Brooks, said the product development team, as well as the lab itself, has undergone a shift to put consumer feedback at the beginning of the process, not the end.

“We started very [much] on the material characterization side — how are we going to build these things? — and very technology driven,” he said. “But we quickly learned that in order to do that, we had to understand the human side.”

Eric Rohr, senior biomechanical engineer for the company, said you can draw a direct line between insights and product.

Customer wear-testing and data, he explained, “is information for us to evolve our footwear. The more we learn about the knee, the more technologies and designs we’ll put into the shoe and address the effects [our shoes can have] on our knees and hips and shoulder and back.”

Those insights won’t mean overhauling the entire line, though. Brooks plans to introduce new technology in what Caprera called “halo” product, or the more extreme styles in its line. Recent examples of those efforts include the Transcend and the redesigned Pure Grit 3, a minimal trail shoe that hits stores next month.

Franchise products will see more gradual updates. “We have a core product line that is consistent, it’s evolutionary. We have a trusted relationship with those runners and we don’t want to completely change everything on them,” Caprera said.

Brooks’ retail partners applaud its strategy. “In terms of product, they’re much more diversified now than they used to be,” said Kris Hartner, owner of Naperville Running Co. in Naperville, Ill.

Beyond the product line, Brooks has even bigger ambitions for its biomechanical study. The firm is looking at ways to utilize its findings at the store level, by prototyping a new sensor system with some top retailers. And its white papers were posted online for the entire athletic community.

“If we do that, we float all boats and everybody benefits from it — our industry benefits and runners benefit,” said Caprera. “We think this is that big of an idea that it could revolutionize the industry for 20 to 30 years.”