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Why New Balance Is the FN 2020 Athletic Brand of the Year

On Dec. 8, New Balance will be honored as Athletic Brand of the Year at the first virtual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 7 print issue about its winning strategy in 2020.

“Pivot with purpose” — that’s the motto New Balance CEO and president Joe Preston emphasized as he spoke with FN in November, while looking back on everything 2020 threw the brand’s way.

While thousands of labels worked to adjust their branding to the pandemic, New Balance stood out from the pack by tapping into its existing superpowers.

“Being a global brand and having leaders all around the world, we have found a way to bring everybody together,” explained Preston. “It’s helped us to communicate, collaborate and operate with the speed and efficiency that, quite frankly, is at another level.”

It wasn’t always a smooth process. Like many companies during the pandemic, the label was faced with the difficult decision to furlough its associates in April, a move that did not weight lightly on Preston. 

“To communicate [the news of the furlough] to our global organization with a video made from my home was absolutely the hardest thing of the year,” said the CEO. “We were fortunate. We brought them all back in early August. But that was easily the most challenging time.”

And earlier this week, the company announced it will shutter its Boston factory amid a larger adjustment of its domestic manufacturing strategy.

Amid the lows, though, New Balance never lost its faith. In addition to remaining steadfast in the running and athletic fields, New Balance broke barriers with new silhouettes, including the retro-futuristic marriage that is the 327, and reissued its classic 992 from the early 2000s. It also crossed new terrain with its unbeatable repertoire of collaborations.

“What we’ve continued to do this year is to surprise, to keep the element of the unexpected,” said Preston.

Joe Grondin, senior manager of global collaborations and energy, added, “There was a clear transition this year into working with new culturally relevant partners where New Balance hasn’t done that as much before, and it’s really surprised people.”

That element of surprise first became evident with its collaboration with Casablanca during Paris Fashion Week in February, where the partners unveiled their unexpected union, as well as the aforementioned 327, which set the tone for all of 2020.

Casablanca x New Balance 327
Casablanca x New Balance 327.
CREDIT: Courtesy of New Balance

Then, despite production delays, shipping challenges and retail closures across the globe, the brand continued to drop hit after hit.

“Even during a global pandemic, sneakerheads are willing to buy sneakers,” explained Grondin. “We really are living in this digital world where you can still make a huge impact and still be very successful.”

Indeed, its duo of highly coveted capsules with lifestyle label Staud took the womenswear world by storm, blending trending apparel and footwear silhouettes at a time where consumers were craving stability in fashion.

“Part of our brand identity has always been to create timeless fashion pieces for the modern woman, so working with a heritage brand such as New Balance, who’s been around since 1906, felt like a perfect collaboration,” explained Sarah Staudinger, co-founder and creative director for Staud.

Staud x New Balance 327, staud x new balance fall '20, staud x new balance
The Staud x New Balance 327 sneaker.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Staud

New Balance tapped into every industry in 2020 — there were projects with fellow heritage brands like Levi’s, as well as sneakerhead favorites Joe Freshgoods and Bodega. The brand’s hit sneaker with Salehe Bembury, Versace’s VP of sneakers and men’s footwear, even earned a record-setting 1 billion impressions, according to Grondin.

“New Balance is an interesting point of evolution. They are beginning to tell different stories and have new conversations,” explained Bembury, FN’s 2020 Designer of the Year. “Many other brands may have tried to steer the narrative, while New Balance allowed me to execute my first collaboration exactly as I envisioned.”

So, what’s to come for New Balance in 2021? In the best way, more of the same: more collaborations and sneaker silhouettes, and more meaningful storytelling that looks toward the future while honoring the brand’s historic past.

For 34 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards ­— often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The first virtual FNAAs will air online on Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. ET and are presented in partnership with The Style Room Powered by Zappos, and sponsors FDRA, Deckers Brands, Soles4Souls and Foot Locker.

RSVP here for the biggest night in shoes! 

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