Exclusive: What Saucony’s President Is Doing to Catapult the Brand to No. 1 in Running

Saucony’s biggest competitors have carved out their own lanes to lock up market share in specialty run retail. Brooks has ingratiated itself with the everyday runner, and New Balance engaged marathoners in the Big Apple with its multiyear New York Road Runners partnership. So it’s understandable that Saucony President Anne Cavassa feels under pressure to catch up.

“We are a team of fierce competitors, and No. 2 or No. 3 isn’t acceptable,” the exec told FN from the brand’s headquarters in Waltham, Mass. (According to The NPD Group Inc., Saucony trailed Brooks and New Balance in sales for the 12 months ending May 2019.)

Looking to improve its position, Saucony named the athletic industry veteran to its top spot last year. Cavassa was previously instrumental in helping catapult Brooks to the No. 1 ranking in specialty running footwear during her stint there as chief customer experience officer and SVP of marketing and apparel.

A year in, key retail partners are already impressed with the impact she’s had at Saucony.

“Anne has brought positive energy to the brand and is the kind of leader they needed. She exudes confidence and competence,” said Brent Hollowell, Fleet Feet chief marketing officer. “She is clearly a competitor and makes no bones about the aggressive goals they’re trying to accomplish.”

For Fleet Feet Chicago owner Dave Zimmer, the most noticeable change since Cavassa’s arrival is Saucony’s shift in focus.

“They’re asking questions as opposed to just trying to deliver product, and they’re having conversations that are much more focused on the consumer and our business,” Zimmer said. “And they’re trying to broaden their horizons in terms of who they want to appeal to.”

Who is Saucony looking to attract now? “Broadly, we’re targeting people who run,” Cavassa said. “The elite athlete, we feel, it’s important they love our brand, as well as the dedicated runner and the versatile [consumer] who uses running as part of their cardiovascular life.”

However, industry insiders believe Saucony — a Wolverine World Wide Inc. brand — should consider a greater shift from performance to athleisure, capitalizing on its catalog of classics — something consumers are clamoring for.

“They have a fabulous wealth of retro product and that market remains robust. It’s a great way for them to extend the brand beyond just their core competency of performance running,” said Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at the NPD Group. “There’s an appetite for smaller brands bringing out retro product that’s perceived as fresh. Fila and Reebok are riding this crest right now, and I think Saucony could grab some of that business.”

The brand has started to push its Originals more, starting with the release of the Azura in December. The lightweight runner first hit the market 30 years ago. Since then, Saucony has reintroduced the Aya from 1994 and the Grid Web silhouette via a collaboration with Kith founder Ronnie Fieg.

“I would like to see them working more with top-tier stores around the world to drop consistent projects, keep the customers continually excited about the brand,” said Sneaker Politics owner Derek Curry. “I like that it’s a small collection, and the storytelling on the quick strike projects really excites the customers.”

Last month, Sneaker Politics delivered its latest Saucony Originals collaboration, a pair of new-look Shadow 5000s inspired by the famed New Orleans coffee-and-beignets shop, Café Du Monde.

Here, Cavassa talks about balancing Saucony’s performance and heritage businesses, gaining ground on competitors in specialty run retail and winning over the underserved, yet critically important, female consumer.

Footwear News: A year in, is the brand where you thought it would be? What have you learned?

Anne Cavassa: “I’ve learned that the team is incredibly passionate with deep roots in running. They have high standards [and expectations]. It’s also a very humble group. There’s a desire to listen and learn, and that is refreshing. We now have a strategic plan that’s three to five years out. We’re beginning to master fundamentals that we need to. We have set out the building blocks for long-term growth. I’ve also learned incredible things about Saucony’s history and heritage — and that we have this mythology as a brand. When we tell those stories, people respond. We have an opportunity to talk about how we’re taking that legacy forward. Saucony is 120 years old and counting — we know how to win and compete.”

Saucony Anne Cavassa
Saucony President Anne Cavassa, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Doug Levy

Saucony trails Brooks and New Balance stateside in the specialty run marketplace. How will you more effectively compete?

AC: “This is our core audience, and we want to lead there. We have built a two-pronged plan that supports it: One is product leadership and the other is authentic connection. When you look at the leaders, they’re winning with product first. Getting our team organized is what we’ve been focused on. I’m excited about what’s coming for Q4, the Triumph and the Guide, in particular. You’ll see new technologies, lacing systems and a [fresh] aesthetic overall.”

What specifically are your competitors doing better than you?

AC: “The product isn’t just function anymore — it’s aesthetics, design, perceived innovation. You could always take cues and learn from that. The more interesting thing to us, and what we’re looking at are [some of the newer start-ups]. There are some brands out there doing interesting things that consumers are responding to. I’d put Allbirds, Everlane and M.Gemi in there. They’re delivering incredible product and digital experiences in a way that we have yet to see in our industry. What does disruption look like for us in a positive way, in a channel that needs a jolt of excitement?”

Many of these disruptive brands have focused on athleisure over performance. How does Saucony play in that game?

AC: “Our core is performance, and we have significant growth opportunity. While race running participation and the performance footwear space might not be growing, there is still room for Saucony to [have a bigger presence] with core product. We do have a diverse portfolio and are uniquely positioned with our Originals line. It is authentic product from each decade starting in the ’80s.”

How can you best leverage the brand’s catalog of heritage product?

AC: “One of our first challenges is awareness. We’re competing in a highly competitive market. First and foremost, we want to spread the word that we have this product. We will take a city approach and get in front of the most influential people, from sneakerheads to the everyday buyer who follows the sneaker fashion world. On the Originals side, we’ve been limited-edition sneaker boutique–oriented. But there is a large market beneath that. So there’s also a tiered account strategy — Tier 0, Tier 1, Tier 2 — that we will be going after and a product plan that will support the tiers. [For example], with something special in Tier 0 like the Azura, what’s the commercial version of that? Or how do you take what’s coming straight off the runway and cascade that into your broader line?”

Sneaker Politics x Café Du Monde x Saucony Shadow 5000
Sneaker Politics x Café Du Monde x Saucony Shadow 5000
CREDIT: Sneaker Politics

Are you targeting the women’s market more heavily and does being a female president give you an advantage?

AC: “There were periods of time where we had significantly greater market share with women than men, but we have lost that focus a little bit, and you can see it in our numbers. We’re recommitting to that consumer and it starts with knowing her. We have an open and diverse team, but we’re still predominantly male. We’re making it incumbent upon them to bring female voices to the table. That forces different conversations about everything from SKU count to how we develop product and communicate. Women have certain things that are dynamic and change over the course of their lives. A very specific example is pregnancy and what a woman goes through after that — the changes in everything from size to how you look and feel in clothing or footwear to your performance and expectations for yourself. The biggest thing that I can bring to the table, or any woman on our team, is that voice and the ability to have that conversation. That’s the first step. And then we’ll make active decisions on where we want growth to come from, which segments and product.”

Wolverine acquired your longtime Italian footwear distributor, Sportlab, in May. What drove this deal?

AC: “Sportlab has been an incredible distributor for Saucony over the years. They’ve built a strong business with their fashion boutique infrastructure. With the acquisition, we now have direct contact with these 1,500 specialty retailers. Understanding what’s driving their business and the region’s positive perception of Saucony allows us to focus on building a globally aligned strategy with local relevance. We’re also creating a design hub, where we can capitalize on the fashion and trend elements for both performance and Originals product.”

International is another priority. How will Wolverine’s venture with XTep International Holdings (which announced it would acquire E-Land Footwear USA Holding in May) propel you in China?

AC: “In China, 80% of the marketplace is Nike and Adidas, and then you have a couple other players and local brands. Xtep has deep infrastructure, knowledge and connection with the runner — and they are going to position us as premium. Since the agreement, we have identified our opportunities over the next three years and very quickly we will have a retail presence in Tier 1, Tier 2 cities across all of China. By Q1 [2020], you’ll see mono-branded Saucony brick-and-mortar stores, and digital before then. The business model is smaller-footprint stores and a balance of footwear, apparel and accessories. The whole head-to-toe view of Saucony will come to life.”

Below, watch the career advice Saucony president Anne Cavassa shared with FN.

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