During Harlem Run’s final Thursday-night speed run of June, the crew — drenched in sweat from the borderline-inhumane humidity — split into two groups and hit the streets surrounding Marcus Garvey Park, while founder Alison Désir-Figueroa cheered them on from the sidewalk (she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant).
Every week, the group hosts roughly 250 people on the New York City streets, on Mondays and Thursdays. Désir-Figueroa is personally sponsored by Under Armour, but the members aren’t — and yet, most of Harlem Run works up a sweat in sneakers with UA branding.
Historically, the brand has struggled to find its footing in the running market. It’s not currently a top 10 label in the important specialty run retail channel, according to The NPD Group Inc., and its most influential athletes are on the baseball field (Bryce Harper), the basketball court (Stephen Curry) and in the gym (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
But Désir-Figueroa has noticed a change in the attitude toward the brand in the New York running community, both inside and outside of Harlem Run.
“When we first signed with Under Armour in September 2015, we were the only crew — the only people in general in New York — wearing Under Armour, to the point where everyone was like, ‘What’s up with Harlem Run? Why are they wearing Under Armour?’” Désir-Figueroa told FN. “Everybody in the city was in Nike.”
Now after four years with the brand, Désir-Figueroa is fielding more questions than ever from Harlem Run members concerning Under Armour’s product performance, release dates and more.
“It’s cool to pass on our product knowledge and see what works for folks,” Désir-Figueroa said. “Lots of people are training for marathons, so they’ll ask, ‘What’s the best marathon shoe?’ And we often get different [Under Armour] colorways or products in advance, so people see what we have and they really anticipate when it comes out.”
But the crew’s impact on the New York run community comes as no surprise to Under Armour.
“We’ve been integrating and supporting run clubs into our strategy for over four years now. They’re so important because they’re a very inclusive and diverse way to embed ourselves into the community and the fabric of running,” explained Topher Gaylord, Under Armour’s group GM of run, train and outdoor. “They’re so authentically true to the environments they live in, they’re inspired by the culture, the art, the food, the running, the fitness and making their community better through running.”
Gaylord said its run club strategy plays out best in cities, and because of this, the brand has aligned itself with several influential crews in urban markets fincluding Resident Runners (New York), Electric Flight Crew (Santa Monica, Calif.), Raw Running (Austin, Texas) and Riot Squad Running (Baltimore).
As part of the partnership, Under Armour provides leaders with footwear and apparel, offers financial support — including race entry fees and event funding — and backs their efforts to support charitable causes as well as enters members in its own sponsored races.
In addition, the brand has incorporated the influential crews in broader marketing campaigns. Désir-Figueroa was highlighted in its female- focused “Unlike Any” campaign in 2017, and Ray Hailes of Resident Runners toured the world with the brand in support of the Hovr platform launch in 2018.
Under Armour isn’t alone in supporting these community-based groups. Reebok (another brand working hard to establish stronger cred in the category) has its elite-level Reebok Boston Track Club and a four-city Midnight Runners event- based group. And other top running labels, such as Brooks and Asics, also back local crews.
But brands aren’t alone in reaping the benefits of run club influence.
Mike Cosentino, co-owner of Georgia-based specialty chain Big Peach Running Co., said it makes sense for retailers to ingratiate themselves with clubs in their areas because it helps introduce them to potential new customers.
“If a running group is trying to grow its membership, we can [share resources]. We can say, ‘We have a database that is this size, we have special events that get people’s attention, we do giveaways with supplier partners that are fun.’ If we do it successfully, it makes the connection between the group and our brand,” Cosentino said.
He continued, “The group leaders provide a gateway for the rest of the members. We don’t say, ‘Now you have to shop at Big Peach Running Co.,’ but they certainly are gatekeepers and can provide that passage.”
Atlanta retailer West Stride organizes its own group, called Wednesdays with West Stride, and hosts other clubs at its stores. Owner Genie Beaver said there is a trickle-down effect, as members will come in looking for shoes that others are wearing.
“People within a group will try on the same product, for sure. A lot of people come in and say, ‘My friend wears whatever brand. I’d like to try it on,’” said Beaver.
Although clubs have the power to market and promote product, insiders agree that runners are especially discerning and the relationships are best if they come off as natural.
“The millennial consumer and the general consumer are skeptical of brands, so we don’t try to be overt,” Gaylord said. “Running is still very much a word-of-mouth [business] — grassroots and marketing has to be done in an authentic, genuine, credible way. We inform our run crew leaders about key campaigns and products, but in our agreements, we don’t mandate or drive specific messaging. We like that to be organic from them.”
Gaylord continued, “If they feel passionate after testing those products about sharing those attributes with their community both online and locally, that’s the unlock for us.”
And retailers noted that the most effective practice for landing sales is to let the consumer come to you. “With our run club, we’ll have vendors out and buy them pizza or their first beer at one of the brew pubs, but we’re not hardcore try- ing to sell them product,” explained Beaver. “They join because it’s an authentic group with values they appreciate; they don’t want to be sold something.”
And Désir-Figueroa said she finds fulfillment from Harlem Run’s close relationship with Under Armour.
“I always feel like my feedback is appreciated and sought after,” she said. “Folks like us, we don’t have the influence like The Rock or anyone on that level. What we do have is the everyday athlete. When everyday people see somebody like me or the other leaders, they see themselves. We’re approachable; you can actually interact with us. And we’re meeting hundreds of people weekly. Under Armour knows our value and supports us.”
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