Athlete (or prosumer?) as God
Life has been busy of late! Work has started, I was without my right hand for nearly a month, many coffees have been explored, friends have been visiting from out of town… but thankfully things have begun to slow down. I am excited for the cooler feeling mornings, and the idea of leaves turning soon. Speaking of coffee weather… picture this. a two-hour window one weekend at my apartment where a friend and I serve drinks for everyone who comes. Everyone I know in New York is invited, with the intention being mingling amongst different groups of people I know…
Similarly, does this name intrigue you at all?
Anyways, this edition features a few special links at the beginning, followed by a longer analysis of the new ways some brands are interacting with their consumers… more on that below. Before that, some photos:
Philosophize This Podcast on achievement society
New Airstream (c/o REI???) looks so cute!
I like the way they restored much of the apartment
US Open Ball People mini film by GQ - was honestly really touching and beautiful
Old people being cute photographers, c/o Lily -- part of a series on the elderly and problems they face in America (housing, caregiving, safe streets, money, leisure, etc.)
I started work!
I started my first full-time job around six weeks ago now, and things have been going well, broadly speaking! I was honestly not sure what to think going into work - I wasn't too excited by my employer, and wasn't sure what exactly I'd be working on. I am working on work that interests me as much as it could at my current employer (building something new that's customer facing), with a great boss and broader team supporting me.
Brands and Athletes
With the US Open and track and field season coming to a close, as well as the marathon and league-sports seasons ramping up, all sorts of brands have been taking advantage of the hype to advertise their brands. Amongst all this, a few new brands have been increasingly catching my eye as industry titans begin to stumble...
Nike has dominated sports innovation in all sorts of sports for just about the last three decades. Covered in a near-audiobook level of production by the Acquired podcast, Nike had everything to lose until roughly 2019. Their tried and true model, used for decades, went as follows:
sign the world's top athletes across sports
create breakthrough equipment for the athletes
use the press the athlete's- god-like achievements in your equipment produced to sell consumers lifestyle pieces with high margins (Nike sells way more dad shoes than elite marathon shoes)
This changed in 2017, when Nike was seeing immense growth in it's lifestyle products (think SNKRS app, Jordan becoming a lifestyle brand, etc.). Nike came out with a 'Consumer Direct Offense' press release stating their new intentions - they would center all marketing on 12 urban cores (New York, London, Shanghai, Beijing, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Barcelona, Seoul, and Milan) that they believed would account for 80% of their growth through 2020, especially among 'the younger generations.' This approach had inconsistent financial results for the first few years.
Then, the pandemic hit, leading to more systemic changes that have recently resulted in Nike's stock decreasing in value for 10 straight days... the first time in the company's history. Nike has an inventory glut that will take months to sort out and has recently fired long-time executives in a managerial shakeup.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, with how much Adidas and Nike dominated in the 2010s, they have both lost market share to smaller brands in sports like soccer, tennis, and basketball. This applies to both teams (as jersey sponsors), with the likes of New Balance, Puma, Under Armor, Mizuno, and Lotto signing more clubs and athletes. Nike is being squeezed from both the bottom and the top...
On Running and relatability
On Running has been a standout in the brands supplanting Nike's position in the broader track and field space (where Nike got its start) and tennis (where Nike greatly expanded). They have accomplished this by counter-positioning themselves against Nike in an interesting way, while still copying some of Nike's familiar marketing messages.
Just like Nike, On Running stresses the importance of their sports-science research in their products, helping justify their eye-watering prices to prosumers. But, critically, On brings the pro-athlete down from Nike's god-like pedestal, and make them more relatable for the prosumer enthusiast athlete. Before the US Open, On hosted a tennis event with (two of only three) signed tennis athletes at the Fort Greene public tennis courts in Brooklyn. Ben Shelton (a young US upstart) and Iga Swiatek (women's first seed for a year and a half) played a few points with each participant who came and lined up. Roger Federer, a brand creative ambassador who is actually involved with On's tennis gear (and former Nike athlete) even made an appearance. Before the event, On announced their third tennis athlete, João Fonseca, who would end up winning the junior US Open. To me, it appears On is singing the sorts of players Nike used to in tennis: young American rising stars and dominating top seeds. But, different to Nike, they have brought more access to their stars, and therefore the gear they use. On even flew out tennis influencers to document their time at this event. On's entry in tennis is still very new, and will be interesting to follow as they continue branding their athletes.
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Before the World Track and Field Championships in Budapest this month, On held a series of social 'Track Nights' across the U.S. with their sponsored track and field athletes. Regular runners could also sign up and race for a personal record on the same track as On's elite athletes earlier in the evening, with the chance to try on the same shoes they elite athletes would be racing in. Afterwards, participants could take photos with the athletes and listen to some talks. Nike would never do this, but is a playbook On is beginning to perfect around their track and field athletes, and expanding to other sports as I mentioned above.
N.B.: In a similar light, Asics flew out multiple running influencers to the Budapest Track and Field World Championships, and running media events with their signed athletes.
It has been clearly noted that, after the pandemic, sports and physical wellness have experienced a new boom. On has expanded on Nike's elite athlete, sports-science forward marketing approach by making it more relatable to prosumer enthusiasts with events like their Track Nights and their pro-athlete 'On Athletic Club.'
Tracksmith, Bandit, culture, and community
Similarly, Tracksmith is bringing ivy style varsity athletics to the enthusiast prosumer. Positioned next to Tracksmith's carefully curated copy around performance gear is a preppy lifestyle collection proud of its Massachusetts heritage. Tracksmith initially grew by providing kits for enthusiast running clubs around the Northeastern U.S. - seeing a whole group of runners wearing the same kit at a race was great marketing. Tracksmith also runs community nights at competition-level tracks across the U.S. where normal runners can sign up to participate - I ran in a 5K track night they put on in NYC this summer. Building on this general approach, Tracksmith recently announced their Varsity Club, a NIL program for college varsity athletes wishing to go pro with Tracksmith's support.
Correspondingly, Bandit Running has also begun to grow quickly recently by infiltrating the numerous 'runners groups' that have popped up in metropolitan areas since the pandemic, especially New York. Working with local fashion influencers in a 'relaunch' (they have been around for a few years already), well known lifestyle photographers, and NYC socialites, Bandit is serving those at the merging of the prosumer running and creative as lifestyle. This has culminated in a marathon training program that is a lifestyle to live by. It features sports psychologists, nutritionists, etc. (in person for a select few chosen by Bandit, online for everyone else) in partnership with Asics.
These are just two of a myriad of brands around the world that have started to cater to this niche. Satisfy, operates similarly to Bandit but in Paris, Soar similarly to On (and at a much smaller scale) in England. Perhaps before its time Undefeated started in a similar vein with lifting and boxing culture in LA. However, they attempted to detach themselves from this geography and community and cheapened their brand after a deal with Nike.
As newer runner and longtime soccer and tennis enjoyer, I am glad more fresh air has been brought into sports apparel and their relations with top clubs and athletes. There is even more to be said about how other big brands (New Balance, Mizuno, and On as previously discussed) are flexing their creative muscles in new ways to take advantage of Nike's malaise.
However, I am most interested in the long-term fate of these smaller, niche brands that have appeared. Many of them have grown with their specific geography and community to thank, and previous versions have failed in expanding that appeal outside.
It is also worth noting that many of these upstart brands have subscriptions; both Tracksmith and Bandit have yearly subscriptions that provide you discounts on gear, exclusive access at famous races, etc. On has subscriptions for recyclable shoes and clothing.
Whether or not these brands continue to grow, as a consumer in the space, I am excited to have chances to meet athletes I admire and experience what its like being a pro athlete every so often, and experience new ways of interacting with the clubs I follow.
The Why I want to be in rooms full of people I love. The world goes white then green again like the mind telling the body it is not alone. The body saying something I can almost hear above the sound of a dog barking because he feels himself tied and tremendously alone. Who would you believe? I walk the great streets of New York City where many great people have lived and think how great it is to live and die on earth even if it means having known nothing of the why. Nothing of the why. Alex Dimitrov (2013)
That’s all folks!
Take care everyone, ‘till next time :)