For corporate litigator-turned-endurance athlete Robin Arzon, it’s important to look good when crossing the finish line. She runs in Adidas Ultra Boosts and laces them with hands sporting flashy four-finger rings.
But winning races isn’t her priority.
“I’m largely self-motivated, and my competition is definitely internal,” Arzon, an Adidas brand ambassador, explained to Footwear News. “I look in the mirror and want to be better than yesterday.”
Arzon characterizes the modern runner. The sport is part of her life, but it’s not the only way she stays fit. (She is also the VP and head instructor of Peloton Cycle.) She’s fashion-focused, and self-expression through athletic attire is important to her. And she openly shares her fitness journey through social media.
If she weren’t aligned with Adidas, she’d be the prototype pitch person for any brand targeting today’s multi-interest athlete.
“At any given race, a select few show up with the intent and belief to break the tape,” said Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks. “The rest started running for other, less competitive reasons — to clear their head, connect with friends, get back in shape. We want to be the brand for them.”
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which tracks participation in sporting- and fitness-related activities, defines the group of runners Weber referred to as “casual” as those who run fewer than 50 times a year.
According to the SFIA, that demographic is getting bigger — about 21.8 million people in the U.S. were considered casual runners in 2016.
But the core runner group, which SIFA defines as those who lace up 50 or more times a year, isn’t growing. From 2011 to 2016, that group dropped to 25.6 million, from 28.7 million.
Industry insiders believe the rise of the casual runner is the result of growing interest in other activities.
“Millennials are focused on fitness and health, but not in a competitive and serious way,” explained Matt Powell, VP and sports industry analyst with The NPD Group. “They’re not nearly as committed to one activity as prior cohorts were, and they’re moving from one thing to another with fluidity.”
Saucony president Pat O’Malley said the shift started four decades ago but accelerated in the early 2000s.
“The 1970s were competitive; in the 1990s, charity running came on strong,” he explained. “But in the last 10 years, the modern runner has become a larger voice in the marketplace.”
Asics America president and CEO Gene McCarthy said the rise of color and fun runs, and more people running shorter races, is responsible for the change. And Alexa Andersen, category director for Adidas’ women’s running unit, believes burgeoning boutique fitness activities such as Orange Theory are boosting the trend.
Making a brand attractive to consumers also has changed vastly. This new athlete isn’t just interested in how athletic outfitters help people stay fit. They want to know the brand’s identity, its message and what it represents.
“Aligning with people that have the same values as you is a great way to get your brand out there to a lot of people,” O’Malley said. “We try to find people who have a great social media following and something to say.”
O’Malley believes Saucony has found its connection to the modern runner in London-based filmmaker and photographer Ben Brown. Adidas has Arzon. And Asics aligned with 18-year-old track star Candace Hill to speak to this new breed of shoppers.
“Not only is she the fastest teenager in the world, she also is a terrific student,” McCarthy said of Hill. “There are more people looking at her Instagram page to see her at her prom than a track meet she was in.”
As these consumers use social media to spread awareness — and build buzz — brands also have to cater to their style demands.
“The modern-day runner is sweating with swagger,” said Arzon. “I wear four-finger gold rings and crazy jewelry. That’s my armor for race day.”
Simply put, today’s runner won’t be caught at the starting line looking tacky. “The corny running gear has had its day, it’s gone,” Arzon proclaimed. “We definitely need to look good, and we perform better when we look good.”
Brands are well aware of this newfound aesthetic-driven need and are reacting accordingly. “It’s always performance first — that’s what we stand for — but what’s important for this runner is that the product looks good,” Andersen said. “What’s also important is versatility, a shoe that could be worn to different fitness activities.”
A sizable challenge, according to McCarthy, is balancing aesthetic beauty with the tech story. “The technical features have to be implied rather than stated,” he said.
For fall ’17, consumers can expect to see athleisure looks designed by the market’s top brands to satisfy both aesthetic and functional interests. Brooks will debut a silhouette for men and women, the Revel. Asics will introduce the Gel-Kenun as well as deliver updates to its Gel-Quantum 360 and FuzeX franchises. Adidas will continue to deliver Boost-infused offerings. And Saucony will drop its Chroma Pack, featuring fashion-focused uppers on its top performance styles.
While running-based brands are trying to appeal to the contemporary athlete, not all retailers have found success with this growing group.
“The vendors want their brand to be hip and cool, but that customer they’re focusing on doesn’t live in the suburbs,” said Kris Hartner, owner of Illinois-based Naperville Running Co.
By contrast, retailers such as Foot Locker, which operates its most lucrative locations in metropolitan areas, are intentionally targeting these shoppers.
“Our consumer is certainly the modern runner. The running silhouette has become very much a part of sneaker culture, and kids in our world, they’re driven by looks and comfort,” said Dick Johnson, Foot Locker’s chairman, president and CEO. “They’re looking for what’s cool in sneakers, and right now the running silhouette has a lot of heat behind it.”