Athletic Footwear: Smaller Brands Pull Ahead of The Pack

Image: On Running

Nike, adidas, and other shoe giants had a tough 2020, with a 70% decline in sales. Meanwhile, smaller running brands left them in the dust:

  • Roger Federer-backed On Running grew 200% last year. The Swiss shoe firm is targeting an autumn IPO that could value the company at $5B.
  • Cross-training shoe maker NOBULL saw 80% growth, nearly reaching a half-billion dollar valuation, and is on track to double sales through 2021.
  • Sustainable shoe company Allbirds is reportedly filing for IPO with a potential $2B valuation.

Footwear for her. “Shrink it and pink it” won’t cut it anymore. Brands championing high-performance shoes for women, a traditionally underserved market, have seen exceptional growth.

  • Brooks’ women’s performance segment grew 80% in Q1 of 2020, toppling giants like adidas and ASICS, whose sales in that category declined 35%.
  • Five-time Olympian Allyson Felix launched Saysh One following a high-profile breakup with Nike. The shoe giant wanted to dock Felix’s pay by 70% after her pregnancy.
  • HOKA, led by Wendy Yang (the first female president of a running brand), saw sales explode 58% to $352M during the pandemic.

A new consumer. Public distrust of large corporations is high following widespread “slack-tivisim” during social justice movements last year. 54% of consumers say they would boycott products because of the company’s position on social causes.

A new playbook. Stepping up are smaller shoe brands, founded by athletes with skin in the game. Take Allbirds or HOKA, both led by former professional athletes who advocate for authenticity. They’ve leveraged innovative strategies, partnering with diverse brand ambassadors, executing culturally important collabs, and building cult-like fanbases.

In other news, Nike built another Olympic record-breaking super shoe, lululemon will launch its first shoe line this year, and emerging startups are elevating footwear tech — such as $300 smart insoles by Nurvv and pace tech by Vimazi.

Takeaway: Footwear fanatics are shifting their priorities. While smaller running shoes may never truly dethrone Nike or adidas, they’re steadily carving away a niche of gung-ho runners who value performance, inclusivity, and authenticity.