Exclusive: Brooks’ CEO Explains Why the Brand Is Sticking Solely With Running Shoes

Brooks CEO Jim Weber
Brooks CEO Jim Weber.
Jon Duenas.

Brooks CEO Jim Weber’s primary mission is to get more people running — but he’s aware there are sizable hurdles ahead.

“There’s an inactivity epidemic. There are too many people who are completely inactive and sedentary,” he said. “And we’re competing with this digital firehose of stimulus and entertainment. There are too many opportunities to sit.”

The exec is also concerned about certain government policies and how they could not only impact his brand, but also derail the health and wellness of his constituents.

Still, despite outside factors that could stunt the run category and Brooks’ growth, Weber is confident that the brand’s message will resonate with consumers and inspire people to run.

“We’re in the sport, but we’re also involved in the broader running lifestyle,” Weber said. “Anybody who’s deciding to get off the couch, put on shoes and start moving, that’s who we’re celebrating.”

It looks like the Brooks philosophy is paying off. According to data provided by The NPD Group, the company was the No. 1 brand domestically in specialty run stores in 2015 and 2016. Brooks claimed more than 20 percent of that market.

“They have embraced the new runner who is not focused on being competitive, running personal bests, winning a race. It’s more about a lighthearted approach to fitness,” said Matt Powell, VP and sports industry analyst with The NPD Group. “Their ‘Run Happy’ campaign and sponsorship of the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon really speaks to this new runner.”

That messaging will come across in a fresh marketing initiative for fall ’17 when the brand unveils a new grassroots digital-based marketing campaign (launching on Global Running Day, June 7), as well as an energy-packed shoe boasting several new technologies.

The exec spoke candidly with Footwear News about Brooks sticking solely with run.

Brands in the running market are placing greater importance on aesthetics. Will this be a focus for Brooks?
We think performance is timeless, but aesthetics always matters — even more so now. We’re focused on the experience the runner is having and how the shoe is working for them. But the product should also look gorgeous and beautiful and fantastic. Color and aesthetic are evolving, and we have just significantly revamped the design construct of our line. You’ll see more of that in fall ’17, and our look is going to evolve significantly in 2018. We’re excited about where we’re taking design. It’s much cleaner, yet still technical. There are still performance cues.

Brooks Revel athleisure For fall ’17, Brooks will deliver a new athleisure style: the Revel. Courtesy of Brooks.

Brooks has a rich heritage in other sports as well. Are there plans to revisit other categories?
In athletic, running footwear has always been the biggest silhouette by far, with 25 to 30 percent [of the market]. We were full-line athletic for 90 or 100 years, from basketball shoes to baseball cleats, and we were one of a dozen brands there. In run, we saw an opportunity to lead in terms of product and the essence of what running is all about for people. It makes every day better, it’s an investment in yourself and it transcends the sport for millions of people who continue with it into old age. Other categories are exciting and compelling, and there’s a lot of great stuff going on there, but we’re not spending any time on them. We’re 100 percent focused on run.

Does being invested in only one category hinder you?
When we do consumer research around runners who buy running shoes, we’re still only about 7 percent [overall] market share in the U.S. We don’t sell at all price points in all distributions, but we think we still have tremendous opportunity. Globally, we’re developing well in Europe, and we’re entering China and Brazil this year. We’re small, we’re niche, we’re focused — but frankly, that’s our advantage. We’re about $500 million in revenue right now. Our strategy, fully developed, would bring us to $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion globally. That’s what we’re focused on.

Who is your consumer?
There were 40 million people who ran for fitness in the U.S. last year. We want to be their choice from head to toe. We’re invested in track and field, cross-country, in teams and athletes, and we have programs at the high school level. But we go beyond that. At any starting line for a race — the New York Marathon with 50,000 people, the Marine Corps Marathon with 25,000 people — there’s probably 200 people at the front who think they have the chance to break the tape. The others are out for their own personal reasons. That’s who we’re celebrating.

With digital shopping and information-gathering becoming so popular, is the company investing more in digital?
We’re in the process of reengineering our web experience. People want to know more than just what you’re offering. They want to know who you are and why you do what you do. Ninety-eight percent of the traffic coming to our site is there to get information. So we’re completely relaunching our website. We’re going to roll it out month by month. By midsummer, the experience is going to be completely revamped.

What brands does Brooks see as competition?
There’s no brand in athletic or outdoor that doesn’t do run product. It’s competitive. In marketshare data, Nike would be the No. 1 purveyor of running shoes, by far, and then it would shrink down to Asics, New Balance, Adidas and Brooks. The secret in athletic footwear is that the vast majority of the volume is casual, lifestyle, family and kids’ footwear. That’s a huge market, but we don’t focus on that.

How do you balance digital growth with brick-and-mortar?
We believe that 20 percent to 25 percent of our shoes [are sold through] a website. Most of that is through our partners. The consumer wants the convenience of shopping online, and that’s going to continue to grow. But the brick-and-mortar experience is always going to be important to us. We’ve got about 1,000 specialty run stores. Those are the shops at the center of the running community. We’re continuing to work with them on driving traffic, which is a challenge for us because we’re not a mass marketing-driven brand. We launched Fasttrack specifically for specialty run. It’s a mobile app that gives our retail partners access to our full product line in every color, size and width on a screen, so if they don’t have that color or size in stock, they can ship it to the customer’s home. It gives our partners omnichannel capability as a specialty retailer. There’s a lot we’re doing to support our best partners because it’s over 80 percent of our business.

What are some of the challenges Brooks faces?
JW: We lost almost 900 stores to bankruptcy last year — doors that we were selling through. We were in over 400 Sports Authority doors. We lost Eastern Mountain Sports and Sport Chalet, too. The other challenge on our radar right now is this border adjustment tax [proposal] and its impact on prices in the athletic marketplace and even retaliation from other countries if they put their own tariffs in place. That would be a disaster for our industry and for us. The neat thing about athletic is that sports bring people together globally — it transcends boundaries. Running is a shared experience and doesn’t care what color you are, who you vote for or who your partner is. The sport lifestyle is global, and if we start getting into a trade war, that’s awful.

Sports Authority Sports Authority. REX Shutterstock.

What issues are top-of-mind as the administration’s agenda takes shape?
There are three topics that Brooks has a strong point of view on. First, for any job growth, you must keep this economy healthy. The way to keep it healthy is to have fair and open trade. We have brands that compete all over the world and generate a lot of jobs here in the U.S. Border taxes and anything that restricts trade can create the risk of a recession.

Second: inclusion. It’s a world of 7.5 billion people. It matters that you love your neighborhood and your family, but the days when you can close yourself off from the rest of the world as a nation and as a business are over. We believe in inclusivity. Some of these policies that look like you’re limiting immigration because of not who you are but what country you’re from, that’s just a bad direction to go in. Immigration is part of what makes America great and healthy.

Finally, the environment. We believe in the science of global warming, and even if you don’t believe in it and rising carbon dioxide, we as a company cannot go back on environmental stewardship. It’s part of who Brooks is and a part of our values — and it matters to runners.