Brand of the Year: Brooks Sports

Running is defined by brands. The Kenyan brand. The elite 4-minute-miler brand. And this year, the standout athletic brand: Brooks Sports.

The Bothell, Wash.-based firm, part of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., spent most of 2012 increasing the distance between itself and nearly all other running lines in the specialty channel.

Retailers said Brooks’ steadfast focus on the running community — powered by technically designed, form-fitting product and quirky, yet spirited marketing — has elevated its profile with consumers wanting to rack up some mileage.

Kris Hartner, owner of Naperville Running Co. in Naperville, Ill., said the firm is “firing on all cylinders right now” because it has rounded out its product assortment with svelte, closer-to-the-ground sneakers such as the PureProject collection and improved its kicks for casual joggers. “Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket, which they used to do with the Adrenaline style, which was a majority of their business, they added all these other ones that are now top sellers,” he said. “But what’s even better is how the shoes are feeling on the customer’s foot and how they are working.”

And runners of all stripes appear to agree. The company is expected to tally more than $400 million in sales this year, up from $300 million in 2011. What’s more, corporate executives predict the firm will break $1 billion by 2020.

“We’ve just had our heads down, trying to win with runners day in and day out,” said Jim Weber, president and CEO of Brooks.

For Weber, that strategy was devised more than a decade ago, when he joined the firm in 2001. The plan was to exit the lower-priced shoe business and aggressively target dedicated runners with sophisticated product. It worked.

The connection with runners began to soar in 2009, shortly after Brooks boosted its research-and-development arm, a move that would eventually lead to the fall ’11 launch of the well-received PureProject line. The firm also signed on as a sponsor of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series, a 29-event platform that helps the brand reach about 500,000 participants.

“Brooks executives really understand and know their customer, which is the runner,” said Ken Hicks, chairman and CEO of Foot Locker Inc. “Their shoes are designed by runners for runners, and what Brooks does to take care of that customer in terms of performance technology is terrific.”

Brooks is building a bigger business with Foot Locker, a so-called “development account,” and already has expanded considerably with retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, where it has grown from 10 doors five years ago to all doors.

Still, Brooks continues to focus on a group of about 1,000 specialty stores that heavily influence experienced runners.

Retailer Matt Lucas, president and CEO of the Dallas-based chain Luke’s Locker, is one of them.

Lucas said Brooks is skilled at sophisticated grassroots marketing. For instance, when the athletic brand rolls out new product, Brooks often hosts launch parties in his 10 stores. At the events, attendees take part in social runs to try out the footwear.

Brooks, which will relocate to a new environmentally friendly headquarters in Seattle in 2014, is also banking on its feel-good tagline, “Run Happy,” to appeal to shoppers.

“They don’t take themselves too seriously when it comes to marketing,” said Lucas. “That approach has been fun and well received. When they sponsor events for a specialty outfit like ours, that means more than an ad.”

Nevertheless, the company will evolve its brand-building tactics for 2013. The goal, said Weber, is to create imagery that evokes the running attitude and the experience. The campaign will include videos, digital media and print.

The firm, which conducts business in 60 countries, also has made moves to broaden its international appeal. In February, it opened its first Asian subsidiary, Brooks Sports K.K., in Japan with Custom Produce Inc. That deal was the second overseas unit, adding to the one it formed in Germany years earlier.

International sales make up about 30 percent of its business.

Weber said that as the company increases sales in the U.S., it will need to also sharpen its business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as Central and South America.

According to the firm, overall sales surged 49 percent in the first six months of 2012, compared with the year prior. In the U.S. alone, footwear sales rose more than 50 percent from 2011, and apparel was up 36 percent. Backlogs for next season also jumped 36 percent.

Retailers said the momentum is sure to continue for the firm, thanks to built-up demand for its PureDrift style, which hits Jan. 1. PureDrift is a lightweight shoe with dual flex toe and the company’s BioMoGo midsole and removable insole.

“We have a lot of momentum right now because the product is working well and it looks great,” said Weber. “It sounds simple, but it is very hard to do.”

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