How a specialty running brand can survive in today’s crowded market.

Earlier this year, Patrick O’Malley was appointed president of Saucony, which is part of Wolverine World Wide Inc.

He succeeded Richie Woodworth, who became president of the company’s Lifestyle Group, which includes Sperry Top-Sider, Stride Rite, Hush Puppies, Keds and Soft Style.

O’Malley has more than 25 years of experience in the footwear industry, most recently serving as Saucony’s senior vice president for global product. During this time, O’Malley helped develop game-changing products that have lifted Saucony in the running category, including the launches of the innovative Isofit and Everun collections.

Prior to his 12 years with Saucony, O’Malley held various leadership positions with both Nike and Reebok.

Talking with SGB, O’Malley reflected on Saucony’s position in the market, the brand’s opportunities and the newer challenges faced by the running channel.

What makes you excited about your new job? I’ve been a part of thie Saucony family for close to 12 years and a lot of key members of the team were here when I first got here. So I know how special the team is. For me personally, one of the things that has always motivated me since I’ve been here at Saucony is that I get to be a part of a runner’s journey. I get to be a part of that person who decides to start running one day to lose weight, or reduce stress or for social reasons or decides to want to just race faster. But to be a part of those journeys is such an honor to me and now I get to do it on an even broader level.

What is Saucony learning about the millennial runner? They make up a quarter of the U.S. population and 50 percent of adult runners consider themselves millennial. So they’re going to be the ones that are shaping the future of running and they’re all about experiences. The starting line and the finish line and “How fast can I get there” — that’s definitely a big part of running and is always going to be an important part of our sport. But millennials also want a community of running and want experiences. So the color runs, Tough Mudders and things like that create experiences for them with their friends and that’s what they want to do. And that’s a good shift for the sport in moving away from “the loneliness of the long-distance runner” to more about the running community. It’s much more about that experience and exclusiveness and that’s something we’re excited about.

Is Saucony facing any challenges reaching the new crop of runners?  One of the great things we did about eight or nine years ago is we decided to go after cross country and track & field. Our goal behind that was to get that kid at 16 years old to get that experience with our brand and we’ve started to notice a difference with that in run specialty. We’re the number one brand in cross country and we’re the number two brand in track & field at run specialty. So now many of those first runners are turning 24, 25 years old and they already know us and that wasn’t the case before. That initiative is starting to pay off, and it’s such a fun area to be in with that energy around the younger consumer. With that said, we still want to always speak to the older consumer, and I hate to use that term. But we look at this as a life-long journey with the runner. Our brand goal is to make that experience so good that we create a lifelong dialogue with them and keep them as part of our family for the rest of their athletic life.

How is the overall run category doing? A mild winter is definitely a good thing for a running brand. But the marketplace is tough. The market is probably over-saturated. There are a lot of points of distribution. What’s going to happen is that the really good retailers and the really good brands are going to be the ones that will come up the winners on the other end of. But what’s going to be most important is that those really good retailers and those really good brands work together and help each other through this tough marketplace. It’s just an interesting time. Running’s had tailwinds for a long, long time and the last 18 months it’s been headwinds, and I think 2016 is going to be one of those years where people are going to gut it out. A positive about 2016 is there will be a strong focus on the sport because it is an Olympic year. So the back half of 2016 could see a bump from the Olympics and hopefully provide momentum for 2017.

What are some key priorities for the coming year? We launched Everun in November and the response has been phenomenal. The first three shoes that introduced it were the Triumph, Hurricane and Perregine – all won Runner’s World’s Editors Choice. As we continue to introduce more shoes, they’ll all transition into Everun technology. Our Originals line is the fastest growing part of our brand and we’re going to continue to build on that. Our collaborations are working well, and we’re having great success — even some success in non-traditional distribution channels. And then another initiative that you’ll start to see come to life is what we call “Life On The Run.” The idea behind it is that it’s great functional product, it can still work for running, but it’s got a lifestyle vibe to it. So it’s a nice bridge between our Originals product and our performance product. We think that that’s going to be a good opportunity to allow the runner to wear our brand as a badge throughout the day to tell people that are out on the streets that ‘Hey, I’m a runner’ or ‘I’m fit’ or “I’m athletic.’

 What opportunities is Saucony missing? Brand awareness. The people who know us, love us. We’re known as this great running brand. But there’s an opportunity to reach the people who are not as tied into this running world to find out who we are and what we’re all about. Maybe it’s that athlete who runs for their sport. Or maybe it’s someone who was an athlete who runs after they’re done with whatever athletic endeavor they’ve gone through in their life, but they only know certain brands based on the sports they played. So for us the big opportunity is brand awareness — getting people to know who we are and to shout a little bit louder.

Can you discuss some of your marketing plans? Our social engagement is very strong. We will continue to reach out with social media, but we’re also trying to find aspirational ways to engage the consumer like with our ‘Seeker Stories’ series. These are about different individuals with compelling stories telling how running affects their lives. It’s an astronomer out in Hawaii, it’s a chef out in Montana, it’s a cartoonist out in San Francisco, etc. And we put together these great videos that tell that story. We also run it through everything — social media, print ads, etc. And as we go into an Olympic year, we’re starting to do these stories around our elite athletes like Jared Ward and Sarah True. Also, to introduce our Everun technology, we’ve brought a little bit of fun to it with Max and Miles, a campaign featuring cartoon characters meant to represent Saucony lab technicians. They explain the technology in a tongue-and-cheek way and it makes the technology relatable. And it just brings a nice personality to our brand.

Photo courtesy Saucony