The number-one running shoe brand in Switzerland is making major strides in the American market.
On ranks within the top 10 in terms of sales in the U.S. and has its sights on breaking into the top five within the next 12 to 24 months.
More than five million runners in 50 countries are wearing the shoes with the distinct logo and patented CloudTec sole. The shoes have become commonplace at road races and triathlons around the country, but they’re also being embraced by a customer who is more likely to walk through a festival than break the tape at an Ironman.
On was founded in 2010 by former professional triathlete Olivier Bernhard who approached his friends David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti about reengineering a running shoe to create a different sort of running sensation. The concept he was seeking was a cushioned landing and explosive take-off, or what they describe as “running on clouds.”
The first prototype won the ISPO Brandnew Award and that summer, the first shoes hit store shelves.
Today, the Zurich-based brand is carried at more than 3,500 running specialty stores in the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, Australia, Vietnam and Brazil.
Allemann said when On was developed, they knew it wouldn’t be an easy task to take on the behemoths such as Brooks, the top-selling brand in run specialty stores in the U.S., as well as Nike, Asics and Adidas.
“They told us we were completely crazy and it would never work. But we prevailed on naivety,” he said from his Switzerland office. “This patented technology feels so amazing, we felt we had a real chance to revolutionize the running shoe. Nine years later, we have more than five million fans and it’s the fastest growing running shoe in every market we’re in.”
He said in the run specialty channel in the U.S., On’s sales last year were up more than 70 percent over the prior year. The brand has experienced similar success in Japan, where it ranks sixth, and Germany, where it’s the fourth largest brand. And in its home country, it now has a 40 percent market share.
He said the U.S. market — where the brand has been since 2013 — is “incredibly important to us,” and a place where they’re focusing a lot of energy. On showed at the recent Project trade show in Las Vegas as it seeks to expand its reach outside the running community — a major push for the brand this year.
But interestingly, unlike many of its competitors, Allemann said On isn’t producing any lifestyle-specific shoes to appeal to this customer. “Our shoes are at an intersection between feeling great and looking great so they’ve been adopted by users for all-day,” he said. “Our fans love the feel and want that in their active, everyday life.”
He said On shoes are rooted in performance but look as good with jeans as with running shorts. In fact, many of the high-fashion sneakers are “double or triple the weight of a running shoe,” he added. “They forget the function. But we’re trying to take one step back. A performance running shoe should perform, but it should also look great — and it needs to function.”
In Switzerland, he said, it’s evenly split between those who wear the shoes for running and those who wear them every day.
And often, they’re also wearing On apparel, a category the brand expanded into around three years ago. “We got the shoes right, but then we were frustrated that we had to wear other clothing brands,” Allemann said. The first move into apparel was just for the On team, but it has since grown to account for nearly 20 percent of the brand’s overall business.
Like the shoes, the apparel is highly technical, but also appeals to customers seeking well-designed, comfortable ath-leisure wear. The brand describes its performance running range on its web site as “high performance meets high aesthetics.” Styles include hoodies, sweatpants, running pants, long- and short-sleeve T-shirts, shorts, tanks, vests and jackets.
Allemann said the collection, which is lightweight and created from premium materials, is just as good for traveling as for running a 10K.
“Apparel is growing beyond our expectations,” he said, “but the overall business is growing fast.”
And he’s not expecting a slowdown anytime soon. “We’re still growing organically. We don’t have any big advertising budget, but we’re benefiting from grass roots momentum,” he said.