Why Runners Today are Buying Sneakers From Lesser-Known Brands

Running is the most brand-diverse and largest category in performance athletics. While that fact might intimidate some entrepreneurs, others see it as an open invitation for emerging labels to compete. ­

“Brands are scared off by the dominance of a couple names in basketball, but we continue to see new labels being introduced on the running side,” said Matt Powell, VP and sports industry analyst with The NPD Group Inc. ­

One major enticement is the size of the audience: According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, roughly 48.4 million people in the U.S. took part in running in 2016. ­

To steal market share, up-and-coming labels must offer something different from what’s already out there, according to retailer Kris Hartner, owner of Illinois-based Naperville Running Co. ­

“All our key brands have expanded their lines. If all you are is a variation of something we already have, why would we do 2,000 pairs with you and 2,000 less with them?” he said. “Brands have to solve a problem for our customers. That doesn’t mean the look of a shoe — it must have a functional purpose.”

David Allemann, co-founder of Swiss running label On, believes his brand has solved a problem that others have ignored. “Runners always had to decide whether to go out in a comfortable training shoe or a fast racing shoe. On’s [CloudTec] technology combines both,” Allemann said. “Other brands worked with materials to provide a great running sensation, but we came up with hollow pods that distort for a soft landing and become firm for a powerful push-off.”

China-based performance brand 361 Degrees, meanwhile, is known for its plush Quikfoam cushioning compound for an improved ride, and Topo Athletics is defined by a natural running experience created by a roomy toe box.

This approach to product creation helps smaller labels stay relevant, according to Powell. “Brands need a different point of view and a product that’s unique,” he explained, citing Hoka One One’s maximal cushioning as a previous market disruptor. “They have to come up with their own proprietary technology that helps them stand out from the crowd.”

The efforts are registering results. Jim Monahan, president of 361 Degrees USA, confirmed the brand doubled its business in 2016 and again in Q1 2017 over the same period last year.

Topo Athletics founder and CEO Tony Post said his label saw a 65 percent revenue bump in 2016. And Allemann stated that On’s business grew more than 100 percent last year.

But newcomers do face daunting challenges entering the running market.

“People are skeptical of new brands,” Monahan said. “We need to earn the trust of the people buying our products, whether it is the consumer or the retailer.”

361-Sensation 2 361 Degrees
A runner in the 361-Sensation 2 from 361 Degrees.
CREDIT: 361 Degrees

And it can be tough to bounce back after early missteps. As Post recalled:

“We launched with a split-toe construction, but people weren’t crazy about the split toe. We struggled commercially, but we hadn’t destroyed the brand. So when we made shoes with a traditional closed toe, that’s when our business started to take off.”

What can help propel startup running brands through turmoil is personal passion for the sport. Post, for instance, logs 20 to 25 miles a week; Monahan runs regularly as part of his fitness regimen; and Allemann often hits the pavement with co-founder Olivier Bernhard, a three-time champion of the ITU Duathon World Championship.

“This market has a committed group of entrepreneurs who are serious about running,” Powell said. “And because they are runners, they want to make great running shoes.”

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