New Balance Trips

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

New Balance is forsaking its heritage of communicating with its consumers with low-key, credible honesty, and embracing instead a flashy ad campaign.

Called "Love/Hate," the spots feature the typical lifestyle nonsense that we’ve come to expect from athletic shoe brands like Nike and Adidas: little vignettes that purport to capture the essence of the experiences and relationships people have with their running shoes. The company is doubling its marketing budget to make sure as many folks as possible experience this all-important communication.

The branding comes courtesy of Robert DeMartini, a new CEO with experience working on consumer products brands like Gillette razor blades and Pringle’s potato chips. In other words, he has deep expertise in an avocation that could less-then-charitably be called "making something out of nothing."

But New Balance has something, or at least it did, before the glossy makeover. This is the company that:

  • Sizes shoes for narrow and wide feet
  • Eschews paid celebrity endorsements
  • Makes about 25% of its products in the U.S.
  • Fulfills retailer orders almost in real-time, so they can cater to consumer demand

How the new CEO got from this heritage to a bland lifestyle feel-good ad campaign is hard to imagine, unless you factor in his promise to triple company revenue by 2012. Such bold, Big Picture vision usually requires businesses to forsake the proven reasons for success so far, and embrace lots of management strategy and branding blather to support its wild hopes and dreams.

Am I a dim bulb for missing something here? 

New Balance has built its brand on real, meaningful differentiators, as recapped above. You could easily imagine marketing that promoted any one (or all) of them, and then extended the reach and relevance to new consumers: 

  • Target infrequent or new runners, especially those like me over 40, who have (or fear) foot pain problems. The sizing variability could translate into more comfort and better results. Think introductory programs, a trade-in campaign, or even new products developed for such a specific segment (or segments)
  • Go to town with the authenticity theme…I bet there are celebs who use New Balance and would never talk about it publicly. The company should find them and create campaigns based on that fact: "So-and-so uses New Balance, and doesn’t get paid for it. Just like you."  Or whatever. How about featuring real people as endorsers?
  • Get real with online interaction. Its lame foray into work-out tracking gives little reason to participate, and requires registration to view anything more than a static example page
  • The "made in the USA" theme could be motivational to many consumer groups, especially if they linked the shoe manufacturing to all of the supporting vendors and others involved in the process. This would only work in America, of course, but we’re talking a large market.  Imagine social media tools built around each shoe production "ecology."
  • Promoting the retailer support angle could get translated into consumers expecting to find (or quickly get) their ideal shoe when they go shopping. This speaks to credibility and authenticity (i.e. you want it, you get it)

There’s ample fodder within the business — again, looking at presenting reality, not trying to recast it as some creative invention — to dream up ads, pr, social media, viral whatever, and any other tools to communicate with consumers. I just don’t understand how the company could chose to ignore all of these wonderful brand attributes, and choose to recast the company through some esoteric ad campaign about love and hate. 

The new branding tells consumers absolutely nothing about New Balance, though is says a lot about the new CEO and his branding gurus.

By 2012, they’ll all have moved on to wreak their branding brilliance at other businesses.

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