The trainers that went too far ...

Are sports shoe manufacturers losing touch with reality as they battle to balance fashion with function?

What do the seemingly random Gel-Kayano, Chen-Tao, Shox, Candy and Mostro mean to you? If you're stuck, try thinking about them in relation to brands such as Puma, Adidas, Nike and Asics and you'll soon realise these strange names are the titles of popular trainers.

And it's not just the names that leave some people confused. Puma's decision to enlist French design guru Philippe Starck, hitherto known for his swish hotel interiors and sleek kitchen utensils, to create a range of shoes for launch this autumn has been met with incredulity by some industry observers. Have sportswear manufacturers lost touch with reality?

"Sometimes the big brands may lose sight of where the market is going and try to develop things that are a step too far," says Applecross Retail managing director Mark Blackburn, a sports retail veteran. "But the functional market is very important to them, because they know that the fashion market may fall away.

The pressure is always on trainer manufacturers to come up with something new - even if the latest look harks back to a previous generation. But where is this all leading, and are manufacturers playing a dangerous game in their desire to be fashionable in a notoriously capricious market?

Today the sports shoe market is characterised by a mix of innovation and heritage. On one hand, retro-styled or re-issued trainers are popular with consumers who want to make a fashion statement or simply find the throwback look appealing. On the other, technological advances continue to be important.

Balancing shoe appearance and performance is a significant issue for the manufacturers, given that sports shoes are more popular with fashion-aware youth than anyone else. Mintel Research shows 56% of those in the 15- to 24-year-old bracket has bought a pair of general purpose sports shoes in the past 12 months, compared with 32% of those aged 45 to 54.

"There is a tendency to chase the latest scientific development," says New Balance UK marketing manager Robert Ward. "Always claiming to have the latest ground-breaking technology can turn consumers off because they have seen so much of it."

Stylish performance

New Balance is unusual among the major manufacturers in making many of its shoes in the UK and US. It gives its products series numbers rather than brand names, and produces shoes in a choice of width fittings.

Despite being at the sports performance end of the market, Ward says cosmetics remain important. "We focus on performance more than fashion. We talk about the four Fs: fit, function, form and then fashion. But we've brought cosmetics to the fore - if people are going to buy a shoe they have to be drawn to it in the first place," he says.

Jay Nalbach, Fila's director of European accounts, identifies 1999 as the year young people became tired of demanding the latest technological advances in trainer design and began to look for cleaner and simpler shoes.

There was a desire for less hype and more style, he argues.

There was also genuine interest from consumers in resurrecting some of the iconic shoes of the past. Nike, for instance, found success by resurrecting the Dunk and the Air Force 1.

But Nalbach thinks the retro boom is running out of steam and that some of the smaller brands that have hitched their fortunes to this bandwagon could suffer. "These brands will come and go. If today you have girls wearing Gola because they have 50 different styles, in two months' time they'll be wearing kitten heels."

Donna Hill, PR and marketing manager at Gola's owner the Jacobson Group, is - not surprisingly - far more optimistic about the long-term prospects for the brand. The modern twists Gola gives to its classic designs will continue to make its products relevant to the contemporary market, she argues. "We may update an original design, but we will use modern fabrics. Some of them are vibrant, giving a modern-day twist. We keep considering the needs of fashion."

For the most part, in order to maintain consistent long-term success, sports brands need to achieve both sporting and lifestyle credibility.

Puma UK and Ireland marketing director David Learmonth says his brand has started to reverse the significant decline it endured during the 90s by adopting what he calls a "unique sport lifestyle" positioning, which gives equal weight to innovation in design and performance.

"We have gone out there and made it very clear," says Learmonth. "That has contrasted with a blurred marketplace." The result, he claims, was a doubling of the brand's UK market share last year.

Nike and Adidas remain the two titans of the sector, with Nike selling £256.6m of footwear across Europe last year, with sales up 8%. Adidas has also seen sales grow in Europe, but experienced a 13% third-quarter sales slump in the US last year, which has precipitated planned global advertising in 2004.

Given that major sporting events such as football's European Championships and the Olympic Games will take place this summer, the major sportswear brands are increasing their marketing activity. These international sporting showcases allow the brands to enhance their performance credentials and collect some reflected glory from the deeds of the athletes kitted out in their product.

Athletic premium

Nike says that while keeping close to what the public wants is the key to any business, its first objective is to produce equipment for athletes, using the latest technological advancements to meet their needs and enhance performance. A dramatic example of this is Shox, a technology developed by Nike that uses spring-like columns.

Asics, best known for its running shoes, has shunned the production of contrived retro products and retained a focus on performance. "Our design model has always been the human body," says Asics UK marketing manager Andrew Freeman.

Asics starts the NPD process by identifying a product that is needed or can be improved, then finds a name after it is sure the product can be manufactured. The company does not devise a marketing concept or name before creating a product to fit the idea. In Freeman's view, even the strangest sounding names - the Gel-Kayano is named after the company's head footwear designer in Japan - can have consumer appeal.

"As long as a product name, application and features, advantages and benefits are clearly communicated, any name, however unfamiliar, should not confuse the consumer in today's global marketplace," he says.

Developing products that minimise the risk of injury remains a fundamental objective for most of the sports footwear brands. By associating itself closely with leading athletes, a brand must address the performance concerns of these stars. "The big groups with money will come through with the real advancements," says Fila's Nalbach. "Whenever people train or run, they have problems. Everyone wants to avoid injury."

New Balance's Ward is happy to admit that all of the leading brands make good shoes. The difference between his brand and the likes of Nike and Adidas, he feels, is that they also have "statement marquee products" aimed at the lifestyle market.

Unlike the large sums spent on advertising by the likes of Adidas and Nike, most of New Balance's marketing spend goes on training retailers so that they know the benefits of each shoe and are able to explain them to the customer. It is generally accepted that the leading sports clothing multiples are fairly weak on customer service, which has allowed the independents to carve out a niche for themselves.

New Balance recently decided to cut its shoe range, reducing its SKUs by 20%, to concentrate on the 'category killers' consumers most wanted.

Reebok has taken a completely different approach to its positioning, turning more to the street than the sports arena. Last year, it teamed up with hip-hop stars Jay-Z and 50 Cent to launch two signature collections bearing the artists' names.

These products, says Reebok, are unabashedly "street-inspired" and designed for young men and women "who want the style of their gear to reflect the attitude of their life".

As well as fusing sport and music, Reebok has even turned to the art world, releasing three limited-edition sets, each of 300 shoes, featuring designs by Imai Toons, Risa Fukui and Gordon Hull. The shoes are priced $180 (£97.50) and aimed at what Reebok calls the "fashion-forward consumer and sneakerologist".

Power of personalisation

Nike likewise recognises that there will always be people who want a more individual stylised image than that offered by a pair of mass-produced shoes from a high-street store.

In response to this demand, it allows purchasers to customise their trainer by colour and by adding an eight-character signature to the shoe (www.nikeid.com/europe).

None of the leading players are standing still, but clearly not everyone is moving in the same direction. But while some lean toward the fashion end of the market and others put a premium on performance, what is without doubt is that there are large stakes to play for.

According to a KeyNote report on Sports Clothing and Footwear, the UK sports footwear market is forecast to reach £1.5bn this year. That's a lot of shoes to sell. Consumers may be fickle about their choice of footwear, but their appetite for trainers remains strong.

THE REVOLUTION OF RETAIL

Sports shoes are big business for UK retailers. According to Mintel, UK retail sales of sports footwear reached £1.42bn in 2002, up 3% on 2000.

It accounts for about a third of all footwear sold and the indications are that the market is growing.

The market is led by JJB Sports, which in 1998 acquired its biggest competitor, Sports Division. JJB now has 430 stores across the UK, but this month announced a 3.5% drop in like-for-like sales in the August to January period.

Its main rival, JD Sports, has also had a tough time, reporting losses of £5.6m for the half-year to July 31 2003, down on profits of £7.6m in 2002. Like-for-like sales declined 2.7% over the year.

But its latest trading statement, released earlier this month, showed a more encouraging 3.7% increase in like-for-like sales over the previous year in the eight-week period to January 3.

None of this has discouraged The Athlete's Foot, a sports shoe specialist based in Atlanta, from entering the UK.

In December 2003, it opened its first UK store in Llandudno, North Wales, and plans to open 20 more over the next five years through Applecross Retail.

"We felt there were companies chasing the fashion end of the market and at the other end there are independents - and there's a gap in the middle," says Applecross Retail managing director Mark Blackburn. "But there are a lot of people doing recreational exercise who feel alienated in an independent store and can't get what they want in one of the chains either. We want to stay clear of the fashion market. We're going to supply shoes that are functional with style. We don't want the 15- to 20-year-olds."

The manufacturers themselves also have a small presence in the retail market, in the shape of outlets such as London's NikeTown and Puma's concept store. These are largely devices for delivering brand experience and building image - although, of course, any revenue derived from product sales in these stores is appreciated by the brand owners.

Become a member of Campaign

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.co.uk, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content