By Thomas J. Ryan
Following a tough year for the run specialty channel as well as its leading brand, Brooks Running is ramping up investments in digital and brooksrunning.com to support its retail partners to best serve the cyber runner.
At a breakfast meeting at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, Dan Sheridan, EVP and GM of North America, said the number-one place Brooks is investing in 2017 is within brooksrunning.com because it’s the primary place runners are “going when they research and engage with our brand.”
Sheridan said he still believes the best stores in run specialty are the ones that curate product, create an experience, have a community and “understand the value of that community.” But building a local community has changed “drastically” over the last four years for shops with the arrival of online communications and mobile tools.
“It’s about how do you keep them engaged from a digital perspective, and I think it’s the brand’s responsibility to help them to do that,” said Sheridan. Furthermore, while Brooks’ success has long been tied to optimally supporting its retail partners, “now you have this responsibility to actually drive demand for our brand in all channels.”
In North America, the brand is focused for 2017 around three areas around runners: where they research and engage, where they shop and where they run.
Beyond the go-to spot for consumers, the primary focus on brooksrunning.com is because it connects the brand to all channels and supports omnichannel shopping behaviors.
From the service perspective, Brooks in March and April will be launching a new app, Fasttrack, that will enable stores to drop-ship any product. Sheridan said the app particularly addresses the tendency by consumers to head online when an item is out of stock at a store. The new service will build on its partnership with locally.com, which enables runners to shop on the Brooks website and then pick up the product at local stores.
Brooksrunning.com will undergo a “whole web refresh” by mid-year. The site will bring out “why we exist as a brand to the forefront,” and the company is investing heavily in content around education and inspiration. Said Sheridan, “We are now in the content business as a brand telling stories daily, weekly and monthly.”
From a “where they shop,” perspective, Brooks will further invest in “telling all these great brand stories throughout the retail environment.” He said it remains a challenge to break through the clutter as a niche brand, but Brooks’ Run Happy positioning continues to provide a “unique” way to engage runners.
As far as “where they run,” Brooks is in the second of a five-year deal with Rock & Roll Marathon and will continue to invest in those races. The brand is also reaching younger runners at its annual Brooks PR Invitational, which invites the fastest high school athletes in the country to the brand’s hometown in Seattle for a competition. Finally, Brooks is working to reach consumers “that don’t define themselves as runners” but still include running as a significant part of their active lives. Marketing programs are being built around yoga, Orangetheory and other newer fitness regimens.
The shift to reach more non-core runners was first undertaken last year as part of an “All The Run” program to reach those who do many other activities while also running. The program, with a particular focus on millennials, is being broadened this year.
Anne Cavassa, chief customer experience officer, said the brand traditionally fixated on one subset of runner, the Pacer, who steadily runs more than 20-plus miles a week and defines him or herself as a runner. Other sub-segments that Brooks is now addressing more directly include the Goal Seeker, who is motivated by running goals such as races and PR but often moves “in and out” of running amid other activities. Another newer target is the High-Fit Active, who is “incredibly fit” and into cross-training but doesn’t define running as their “go-to sport.” Marketing programs are also being set up to better engage the Soul Runner, who runs regularly but isn’t goal-oriented.
Beyond engaging a broader spectrum of runners, Brooks is developing product that, while performance-based, is “at least more accessible product that the everyday runner might engage with.” As part of that push, a new $100 footwear running collection, the Rebel, under a more casual silhouette will see a major launch this fall.
Cavassa said “All The Run” overall represents “a very, very large opportunity for us globally.”
Other initiatives for 2017 include the unveiling of its largest and most inclusive program for runners aligned with Global Running Day on June 6 that will reach multiple cities across the country. Brooks will also be reinvigorating its Energize category with an all-new shoe that will launch in September. A new look for bras will also arrive that aims to be more inclusive of a woman’s entire active lifestyle
Accomplishments for 2016 included the launch of its first-ever TV commercial, “The Rundead,” which drew 10 million views online and was played in cinemas. Among its athletes, a highlight was Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project (ODP) runner Desiree Linden, competing in the marathon at the Rio Olympics.
Brooks also earned some grassroots attention for its support of the Rule40.com awareness campaign around athletes’ rights. Cavassa said the Rule40.com support was “a little bit different than what we’ve done in the past” and that Brooks is looking to pursue similar initiatives to deepen its connection with the running community.
Regarding its performance in 2016, Sheridan said the company was still finalizing fourth-quarter figures but indicated that the brand started the year in a “pretty significant hole,” given the bankruptcies that arrived. He stated, “2016 was one of the most challenging years globally and I think every brand is feeling that.”
He singled out the bankruptcy of Sports Authority, which saw the exit of about 500 locations, as a particularly challenging hurdle, but the brand “saw disruption across every channel in performance run.”
On the brighter side, Brooks had “an unbelievable back to school,” led by the launch of the Ghost 9. Brooks also wound up surpassing the $500 million annual revenue mark for the year, a key milestone for the brand.
The Ghost 9, launched in June, was up more than 30 percent in the fourth quarter and up 40 percent year over year for the back-to-school time frame (July-September).
The Adrenaline GTS 17, recently launched, was up at key U.S. national accounts (5 percent in women’s unit sales; 4 percent in men’s unit sales) in December. In that same month, U.S. run specialty at-once invoice units for the GTS 17 were up over 13 percent versus 2016. Overall, the Adrenaline GTS 17 and Ghost 9 are No. 1 and No. 2 at SRA.
Sheridan noted that Brooks maintained its leading market share position at SRAs nationwide with 25 percent running footwear retail dollar share and 65 percent sports bra retail dollar share. Brooks ranked No. 4 in market share across channels with 7 percent retail dollar share among people that buy running shoes to run in, moving up 0.8 percent in 2016. Also encouraging was Running USA’s 2016 survey showing that Brooks was the most recently purchased shoe brand among serious runners, accounting for 23 percent of respondents.
Sheridan added, “We’re really encouraged by the momentum we have in the back half of 2016.”
The current year also faces some potential additional disruption with JackRabbit on the selling block. In mid-November, Finish Line, its parent, indicated it was exploring strategic alternatives for the segment, including a sale. Previously known as Running Specialty Group, the segment operates 70 stores in 17 U.S. states across a number of banners.
Sheridan said Brooks is closely following the situation at JackRabbit.
“We don’t want to see great retailers go away and a lot of their shops are some of our best specialty run stores,” said Sheridan.” So to say we’re watching intently is not an overstatement at all. We’re close to those guys and communicating every single week with them on their path forward. But we need the majority of their stores from a specialty run perceptive.”
Photo courtesy Brooks Running