How to run the race like a challenger brand

—The marketing mavericks at New Balance appear to be reaching out to running skeptics, says Craig Redmond. It’s a strategy that might help it close the gap on perennial brand favourites—

In junior high school, some track and field teammates and I decided to enter a half marathon that was being staged up north in some place called Markham, in and around the Toronto Zoo. How hard could it be, we mused.

That morning, when the gun went off, I sprinted to the front like some crazed rabbit mainlining speedballs. There, in my rightful place at the head of the pack, I was greeted by camera flashes lighting up the dark rainy sky.

And sure enough, there I was again the next morning, in all my glory, on the front page of the Saturday Toronto Star sports section. I guess it was a slow news day, but I’m also pretty sure my mom still has that clipping in her archives somewhere.

Of course, my astonishing lead only lasted for about 38 seconds before my legs turned to margarine left out on a sun-soaked kitchen counter, while cramps pried apart my ribs like the jaws of life cracking open a car wreck.

It was at that precise moment I realized that running wasn’t for me. Nor should it be for anyone in charge of their full mental faculties, I believed.

Regardless, according to the almighty Google, the running shoe industry reports annual sales of $352 billion these days. And last year, shoe marketers in the U.S. alone spent almost $510 million in advertising.

So, I guess Phil Knight was onto something back in the day, when running was still called jogging, and he molded the souls of his prototype running shoes using a waffle iron. Other brands have been chasing Nike to the finish line each year ever since.

One such competitor is New Balance.

Originally founded in 1906, NB currently sits third in the running shoe race behind Nike and Adidas. And, like any challenger brand, it’s been trying to find its own identity, differentiate itself from the category leaders, and carve out a coveted market niche.

That’s why as far back as the 1980s, New Balance assumed an anti-establishment, non-traditional marketing philosophy. The brand leadership team claimed that they were “endorsed by no one,” and instead chose to channel those millions of wasted celebrity dollars into research and development.

And even when they did sign a pro-athlete to endorse their new basketball shoes, they picked the most notoriously un-talkative spokesperson they could find in Kawhi Leonard (as evidenced, silently, here).

Or when they wanted to highlight their athletic shoes by enlisting American track stars Sydney McLaughlin and Trayvon Bromell to tout their wares, they did so by ruthlessly lampooning all the typical cliches we’ve become all too accustomed to in sports shoe marketing.

But now, they appear to be taking that zig instead of zag rebellious approach to the mass market as well—or at least in a U.K. test market anyway.

And they’re gambling that by appealing to the neophyte, running skeptics like myself, they might just narrow the gap between them and the perennial favourite brands ahead of them.

Of course, it might not get you on the sports pages of the Toronto Star but there’s a lot to be said for running heroics like these, and all the other reasons that there are to run, as imagined by the New Balance marketing mavericks.