Asics is making an about-face in its marketing plan as it prepares to mark its 70th anniversary this year. The Japanese sports brand is moving away from its push toward a Millennial lifestyle customer and putting the focus squarely back on its roots in running.
At the end of 2017, the company inked a deal with DJ/record producer and fashion designer Steve Aoki to appear in a marketing campaign intended to attract a younger customer who was not necessarily a runner. The association with Aoki, who has 8.4 million followers on Twitter and 7.3 million on Instagram, was intended to “set the tone for the new brand identity and philosophy — self-expression through movement colliding with culture and sport,” the company said at the time.
Although Aoki remains “a friend of the brand,” according to Sarah Bishop, vice president of marketing, the brand is not working with him anymore.
“Steve was great to introduce us to a younger audience,” she said, “but in 2019, we will win in running.”
To get that message out, Bishop will team with Gene McCarthy, a 21-year veteran of Nike, Under Armour and other brands, who joined Asics Americas three years ago as president and chief executive officer. Since then, he has revamped the organization and built a “world-class team,” which will include a new vice president of sales who will join in April, he said.
He said working with Aoki was part of the company’s push “to broaden our reach to a wider audience, so we used someone with cultural influence. But what we want now is our number-one market share back.”
Brooks currently holds the top spot in the run specialty category, with a 23 percent share, according to NPD Group figures disclosed by Brooks. Asics declined to reveal where it ranked on the list.
“Running is innate to us,” said McCarthy, who was an elite runner who once ran a 3:59 metric mile. “And we want to win in running. We have done it in the past and we have the tools to do it again.”
Asics was founded in 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka, who began manufacturing basketball shoes in his hometown of Kobe, Japan. It is a publicly traded corporation based in Japan and its name is an acronym for the Latin phrase “anima sana in corpore sano,” which means “healthy soul in a healthy body.”
The push back toward running is a corporate one. In its third-quarter earnings release in November, Asics singled out the sporting goods channel as a strong contributor to its business. Sales in the American region through Sept. 30, 2018 dropped from 31 million yen to 25 million yen from the same period in 2017, and the company swung from an operating profit in the region of 4,330 million yen in the nine-month period in 2017 to a loss of 958 million yen in the same period in 2018.
As a result, Asics revised its five-year strategic plan to focus on the performance running market in the U.S., while it also moves to accelerate growth in China, develop its digital business and “convert the apparel business into a profitably growing business.”
Calling the U.S. “a priority area,” the corporation pointed to its popular Gel-Kayano running shoe, now in its 25th iteration, as an area of focus. The Gel-Kayano 25 is being touted as the first shoes to feature cellulose nanofiber, which is said to offer superior stability and cushioning for long-distance runners. The company also launched the HyperGel sereis of shoes, which offer cushioning as well as rebounding abilities. And on Friday, it released the Gel-Nimbus 21, another popular, long-standing model. Many of these legacy shoes are being updated in terms of color and fit this year, Bishop said.
Bishop said Asics Americas is also doubling down on its association with elite runners such as Emma Bates, Allie Kieffer and Olympian Deena Kastor in an attempt to “speak to our consumer base, which is 60 percent female at this point.”
“There are multiple types of runners,” she said, “those who live to run and those who just do it as part of a healthy lifestyle. So we’re tailoring our message to speak to them all.”
She said at the end of the first quarter the company will “launch an apparel campaign” centered around female empowerment.
It is also continuing its sponsorship with Live Nation, the world’s largest live entertainment company, to be the exclusive footwear sponsor across select venues and festivals in the U.S. and Canada.
Ironically, Asics no longer sponsors the New York City Marathon, an association that had spanned 25 years and ended in 2018, with New Balance stepping up to replace it.
This is not to say that Asics is moving completely away from the lifestyle space. Asked to break down the percentage of the brand’s business that is lifestyle versus performance, McCarthy pointed out that “all of our product is performance product, but how the consumer chooses to use it is what makes it lifestyle.”
Bishop said, too, that is continuing to work with collaborators such as designer Kiko Kostadinov, who reworked some of the brand’s core models.
McCarthy said the internal shift back toward performance came as a result of the “very turbulent marketplace” that exists around the world today. “The industry is trying to settle down so we’re punctuating what got us to this place.”
“We’re getting back to basics,” said Bishop.