Brooks and New Balance might lead the running category, but hot on their tails are two upstarts: Hoka One One and On.
In the competitive specialty running retail channel, according to The NPD Group Inc., Hoka holds the No. 3 spot as of May. On is ranked No. 7 overall.
“The consumer really likes the ride with On. They find it to be comfortable and different from other shoes,” said NPD analyst Matt Powell. “In the case of Hoka, we’re seeing customers say, ‘My knee doesn’t hurt anymore,’ or ‘My hip stopped hurting, and I can run again.’ ”
Hoka and On are experiencing growth at a time when performance footwear is struggling. Powell believes it’s their approach to product creation that’s helping them capture the attention of consumers. “They’re addressing needs in the market that are not being met by other performance brands, and they’re rethinking about what the consumer needs,” Powell said.
The brands are also gaining ground in categories outside of their core running market.
Both comfort stores and sneaker boutiques are finding success with the two labels, which are atypical brands for the channels.
Dave Levy, co-owner of Connecticut-based chain Hawley Lane Shoes, said traditional comfort brands are down roughly 3%, but the store’s athletic business is up double digits. Among the sports players, Hoka and On trail only New Balance in sales.
“The nice thing about being performance-based is that it definitely translates to comfort,” said Lee Cox, Hoka’s VP of global marketing and sales. “If you can run in a shoe for 100-plus miles, they’re probably pretty comfortable to walk around in.”
Jay Gordon, co-owner of sneaker boutique Bodega, said Hoka, which the store began carrying about two years ago, is resonating with his style-focused consumers. “They’re probably double where they were with us a year ago [in terms of shelf space],” Gordon said. “I have no other footwear brands I could say that about.”
Bodega — in both its Boston and L.A. locations, as well as online — offers a range of Hoka shoes, including road performance and outdoor-specific looks. For the sneakerhead, chunky is on trend, and Cox is aware that part of the brand’s momentum is driven by the oversize midsole on its shoes.
“There’s absolutely a timing benefit,” Cox said. “We’re capitalizing on that, but you have to recognize the moment and then fuel it. What the team here has done well is [expand] brand awareness.”
One thing Hoka has done to make itself visible to more consumers is form collaborations with Outdoor Voices and Engineered Garments. Execs said the rationale for outside partnerships is simple: “It comes down to whether it will put the brand in front of new eyes? If we can answer yes, and nothing would alienate our core values, we’re interested,” Cox said.
On, however, has no interest in collaborations. “Authenticity is super important to us. We’re an engineering, performance-driven brand, and I don’t see any collaborations that would be authentic within that,” explained On co-founder Caspar Coppetti. “We get approached quite a bit. So far, we’ve always turned them down.”
Still, despite its deep focus on the core, the Swiss running brand is emphasizing aesthetics more now than ever.
“When we designed the Cloud model, we were looking for a silhouette in the sporting space that hadn’t been overused. Basketball, tennis and car racing shoes had all been [out there]. The silhouette that hadn’t was boating,” Coppetti said. “We took that design and fused it with our latest available upper and manufacturing technologie,s and our CloudTec [cushioning] system. That gave the product a look that you could wear with a suit or with jeans — and will get you into a nice restaurant or club where sneakers are not allowed.”
The brand’s fashion appeal landed On in several high-end department stores, including Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.
As retailers clamor for both labels, the shoes are also garnering the attention of celebrities. Hoka One One has been on the feet of Pippa Middleton, Reese Witherspoon and Britney Spears, while Will Smith and Roger Federer have been seen in On.
Cox believes the brands — Hoka at 10 years old and On at nine — are getting attention because they’re still largely unknown and consumers are just finding out about them now. Neither brand has any concerns of a shift in trends or losing the cool factor they’ve earned.
“We’re still very small in comparison to everybody else. In a space as big as running, On has a lot of room to grow while staying a small, nimble, unique brand,” Coppetti said. “So losing our coolness is not a problem we’re facing at the moment.”
Added Cox, “We don’t think about the cool side. All brands go through peaks and valleys; we’re just on this tremendous run. As long as we stay true to our core philosophies, we’ll be just fine.”
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