How Asics Plans to Dominate the Running Market — Again

Asics knows that winning in the super-competitive running market isn’t a sprint — it’s a marathon. Now in its 70th year, the sports brand is again gunning for the segment’s top spot. For most of its history, Asics has been a consistent leader in the category, delivering several shoe franchises, such as the Gel-Cumulus and Gel-Nimbus, that running diehards swear by.

But the dash to the finish line hasn’t been free from stumbles. According to The NPD Group Inc.’s retail tracking service, the brand was No. 2 in the run specialty channel in 2016, trailing only Brooks. The next year, with New Balance gaining steam, Asics fell to third — and stayed there in 2018.

To regain its footing in the marketplace, Asics last month named industry veteran Kevin McHale as its national director of run specialty sales and hired tech reps to service key retail partners.

It’s also focusing on offering innovative running products. In February, Asics released the latest creation from its Japan-based Institute of Sport Science: the MetaRide. The tech-loaded sneaker, which took two years to develop, was designed to reduce energy loss in the ankle joint and make running long distances easier. The pinnacle-performance product retails for $250.

The company will follow up with a takedown of the shoe in the fall and other models at lower price points using the same energy-saving concept. The move is an effort to equip all runners.

“The smaller fringe brands that have had rapid success over the past couple of years have had unique selling properties in their products. But Asics has had traditional appeal,” said marketplace merchandising manager Paul Lang. “There’s a need for us to offer something more unique than we’ve offered in the past. For us, [the goal is] to diversify our performance line and offer more aspirational product. That’s what runners want.”

The reinvigorated push, according to Lang, is reminiscent of the Gel-Kayano release in 1993, the brand’s most technically advanced running shoe at the time. The Kayano franchise has since become a favorite with hardcore runners.

But as consumer demand has shifted in recent years to favor more fashion- and lifestyle-focused sneakers, could Asics’ investment in performance technology miss the mark?

Lang doesn’t think so.

“We’re winning in lifestyle on the backs of former performance product taken out of our archives,” he said. “Our most popular lifestyle shoe right now — something you’ll see on the shelves at [stores such as] Kith — is the Gel-Kayano 5 OG, a shoe that in 1999 was potentially the biggest running shoe in America.”

He continued, “The MetaRide, 10 to 15 years from now, could be something that lives through a lifestyle lens.”

And NPD’s senior sports industry analyst, Matt Powell, who has been critical of brands that overinvest in performance, is confident Asics’ efforts will pay dividends in the long run.

“A brand that is excelling in performance has the opportunity to go to other retailers and say, ‘We’re doing really well here. You should be giving us more shelf space.’ Success breeds success,” Powell said.

Lang believes the company will go only as far as its performance products can take it.

“We’re going to build performance product first and foremost. You can make sure the visuals are right, you want to be thoughtful with how it’s designed, but if it doesn’t perform, the staffs at any store are not going to get behind it, and it’s not going to sell,” Lang said. “We need to build performance product that’s supported in the channel. When we do that, we’re going to win.”

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