The running category is helping fuel a resurgence in performance sales, and the race for the market’s top spot is heating up.
Last year, a trio of key brands — Brooks, Hoka One One and On — generated huge conversation as the pandemic spurred a consumer shift to performance product.
Although these fast-rising brands are occupying more shelf space — and driving more sales — longtime market leaders Asics, New Balance and Saucony are still holding on to positions at the top of the pack.
Here is a more detailed look at the running landscape and what it will take for brands to win in this year and beyond.
Although still a market leader, Asics knows there’s a lot of talk around its competition for a reason, which has put the brand in an unusual position.
“Today, we’re in more of a challenger position versus the market leader of years ago,” said Ian Dickinson, Asics’ VP of categories. “We have a long history of building great performance running product, but we’re focused on rebuilding the trust with loyalists, both consumers and retail partners, and also inspiring new runners to be active.”
For 2020, the company was positioned only behind Nike and Brooks in broader market running shoe sales, according to NPD data, and it held the No. 5 spot in the run specialty retail channel.
From a product perspective, Dickinson said Asics saw wins with its renowned Gel-Nimbus, Gel-Kayano, Gel-Cumulus and GT-2000 franchises, as well as newcomers Gel-Kayano Lite, Gel-Nimbus Lite and the Novablast.
“A lot of what I would call their workhorses are continuing to do well — the Kayano, the Nimbus, the 2000 series,” said Burdon of Heartbreak Hill. “They were seeing some of the fit issues in past years, but have started to revamp the uppers, and they have knit versions of a lot of the shoes that are doing well.”
Asics execs said they intentionally pursued a strategy based on a robust product offering, rather than a singular focus. “With all this positive momentum in the sport of running, we aspire to meet the runners where they are,” Dickinson said.
For 2021, NPD’s Powell believes Asics should shift its focus more to solid entry-level product.
“Their most successful shoes have been at the opening price point. They clearly have credible top-end product and they need to continue to make those shoes because they have good devoted fans, but the opportunity is around this new runner, and they are not looking for pinnacle product,” Powell explained.
While the analyst thinks entry-level is the way to go, Burdon said he is looking forward to a specific high-performance shoe from the brand.
“The one I’m excited about is the Magic Speed. We’re bringing it in within the coming months,” he said. “It’s not a traditional racing flat, but it has some pop to it.”
Aside from product, Dickinson said the success of Asics this year will also come from leaning more on the brand purpose.
“‘Sound mind, sound body’ has always been the key cornerstone of the brand. But the reality is that not a lot of consumers know that,” Dickinson explained. “That’ll be something we talk a lot more about in 2021. With the pandemic and the importance of health, it’s more important than ever — because it’s going to resonate more.”
Despite its competition getting stronger, New Balance had a firm grip on top five spots in both run specialty and broader retail in 2020.
Tom Carleo, the brand’s VP of running and footwear innovation, said wins within its women’s business were crucial to its lead position.
“It’s been a big part of our push the last decade and has only intensified in the last few years. It’s been important to us, and it has shown in our growth,” Carleo said.
New Balance’s focus on women included delivering more product specific to her and introducing additions to key franchises through a female lens.
“You’ll see more SKUs on the women’s side than we do on the men’s side,” Carleo said, noting that color and materials are important parts of the equation. “In our key models that are driving a lot of our business — 880, 860, 1080 — we haven’t been afraid to have a female-first approach to design, storytelling and how we market it.”
What’s more, Carleo said, New Balance’s elite athlete ambassadors have forged meaningful connections with consumers.
“Of course, we want athletes that are fast, but we also want them to relate to the communities that they’re in, whether that’s Jenny Simpson and her work with New York Road Runners or Emma Coburn and everything she does for overall fitness and wellness,” Carleo said.
Powell believes New Balance — the sponsor of both the New York City and London marathons — should shift its communication even further to newcomers.
“We’ve got a whole lot of new runners who are coming into the space. The old marketing techniques of doing the marathon is just not what these runners are aspiring to,” Powell explained. “These folks want to stay fit and maybe lose a few pounds, but they don’t have the aspiration to run in a major marathon. We have to talk to these people differently.”
Powell also said New Balance could appeal to more consumers by focusing on shoes with different widths, something it is already known for.
“One of the keys for New Balance over the years has been its offering of alternate-width shoes. They have historically attracted a customer who has more of a specific foot need,” Powell said.
For 2021, Carleo expects the Fresh Foam More v3 — slated for a May release in select markets — to be a top performer, as well as the FuelCell Rebel v2 that’s due mid-April.
He also said much of the brand’s success this year will depend on its improvements in digital.
“We’ve become stronger with our direct-to-consumer business, and it’s something we need to continue to get stronger with, but we have lots of room,” Carleo said. “That’s an area where we do probably have some envy of competitors that have been set up in that battle longer than we have.”
The coronavirus was the catalyst for the running boom that emerged in 2020 — and Saucony president Anne Cavassa believes the brand is well-positioned to speak to the new wave of runners.
“When the pandemic hit, several macro lifestyle trends took shape, and there was a tailwind for us to connect and engage with the millions of consumers turning to running to de-stress, to stay fit,” Cavassa said. “We think it’s more than a moment of time and the start of a multiyear boom.”
From a product perspective, Cavassa said key updates to several core franchises — Triumph, Ride and Guide — resonated with runners, as well as its Peregrine trail shoe.
Although there were successes early on, the disruptions created by COVID-19 prevented Saucony from building on them.
“2020 was a tale of two stories for our brand. We had a lineup of products that we delivered with new technology — Pwrrun, Pwrrun+, SpeedRoll, FormFit — and as the consumer and our partners started to understand how incredible those were, that’s when we started to see growth,” Cavassa said. “But that was interrupted in the end of Q1 by COVID, the financial crisis, the retail shutdown.”
These disruptions stalled the momentum of Saucony.
“Their sales were worse than the market, although they improved in the second half, and it feels like they are getting back in the right position,” Powell said. “Focusing on this new runner represents the biggest opportunity for them.”
Cavassa is confident that 2021 will be a strong year for Saucony — and so is parent company, Wolverine World Wide Inc. The firm said in a February conference call with analysts that it expects the brand to see a 50% surge in Q1 2021 revenues.
And momentum already appears to be on Saucony’s side. Wolverine also revealed in February that Saucony had a Q4 2020 revenues jump in the mid-single digits, as well as gains across all of its major product categories. And its website accelerated more than 65% in the three-month period.
“Saucony is going to be in the conversation and people are going to be talking about the innovation in our product experience and a continued push around sustainability,” Cavassa said.
She noted that the products that could be big hits this year are the Ride 14, due in May, and the update to the Triumph franchise. Also, Cavassa predicted the Endorphin 2 range will win over runners both new and old.
Saucony’s retail partners are also eager to get the Endorphin follow-up in stores as well.
“The first collection is always the toughest. It’s hard to come in with a new, fresh shoe like that, but it performed well in its first year,” said Burdon. “I’m really excited for the update to that. I think it’s going to do well.”