The running-exercise-workout athletic shoe landscape is
populated by companies which have immediate brand recognition among athletes
and consumers. Names such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma, K-Swiss, Brooks,
Asics, Saucony, Mizuno, Avia and New Balance lead the way.
One new entry is seeking to find its place in the burgeoning
In 2005, six-time Ironman champion Olivier Bernhard of
Switzerland attempted to reinvent the way running shoes were designed. He also
wanted to improve the efficiency of running shoes and increase the ROE—return
on enjoyment—factor for athletes.
Bernhard's intentions were not totally altruistic. The
intensity of his athletic prowess led to several nagging and reoccurring
injuries, including chronic inflammation of his Achilles tendons.
His initial creations could be labeled Frankenstein-like: At
one point, he cut apart a garden hose and attached the pieces to the bottom of
his favorite shoes. The concept seemed sci-fi, but Bernhard felt he was on to
something. He ultimately began to work with engineers at the Federal Institute
of Technology in Zurich and in time produced what he was looking for: a shoe
design that cushioned the foot on impact with the ground, produced a powerful
forward launch on takeoff and eased overall stress on the body.
In 2010, Bernhard joined with friends and fellow running
enthusiasts David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti to bring what became On—the
Swiss performance running shoe—and CloudTec—the proprietary cushioning and
outsole technology born from Bernhard's mangled garden hoses—to athletes and
the public at large.
On believers and supporters now include marathoners such as Tegla
Loroupe, and Ironman triathletes such as Caroline Steffen and Frederik Van
Lierde. The products are located in retailers nationwide and around the world.
Here, Allemann speaks about the company's unique approach to
getting the word out, reinventing the category, getting maximum strength
from minimalist marketing and converting hard-core and casual runners alike to try
on the On shoe.
You haven't done a lot of traditional advertising to
this point, so how are you getting your messages out about the shoes?
Our main strength is word-of-mouth. The shoe is from athletes and for
athletes, but it also speaks to people who may not be professional athletes but
are active. And that's what our marketing is. If you look at our Facebook page,
you will see how active the people on it are. Our marketing is also focused on
point-of-sale. So we invest a lot into the design of the shoe, in how the shoe
is displayed at dealers, how the people who [sell the shoes] are trained. So we
focus on the design of the shoe, and what people who wear the shoe are saying
to make the shoes attractive and desirable when the consumer is already at the
point of purchase.
Have you been approached by ad agencies and others to
do national and global marketing campaigns?
That has happened. But we don't feel we need that right now because the shoe is
so unique and has such great word-of-mouth among people who have purchased them
and wear them. We don't feel we need to go in that direction right now. We have
received a lot of attention in the press as well. So we feel that through
consumers and through [media] reviews, that is a much more credible way to tell
our story and to build the brand rather than invest in a big advertising
How big a role has social media played in getting your
message to consumers?
It has been tremendous. There have been a lot of stories about how we tested
the shoe and how we came up with the final, unique product. Most of the
comments on social media have been very positive. So what better and more
credible way to get out our message than to have people try the shoe and tell
other people about it?
Are you concerned that people who are not marathon or
hard-core runners may not consider buying your product when they are looking
for shoes to wear during casual runs or workouts?
We actually have found that a lot of people who are casual runners or who are
in an exercise or workout program have been buying our shoes. A lot of people
are attracted to the design and the comfort, so from a lifestyle perspective
they are buying and wearing our shoes. They are not looking for a racecar style
of shoe. They like the simple lines and great comfort. That has been part of
our goal: You have to convince the eye, and then you convince the foot. So, for
us, it works both ways.
Even though you appear to be taking a low-key approach
to marketing, how would you feel if a celebrity was photographed wearing your
shoes or someone wearing your shoe won the New York Marathon?
We would embrace that, of course. We have had that happen. A few months after our
shoe was available, a woman called our offices and said, 'This is Tegla. I love
your shoes .' It turned out to be Tegla Loroupe, two-time winner of the New
York Marathon [1994-95] who has competed in the Olympics and is a legend in the
marathon community. She told us that friends of hers were wearing our shoe and
they gave her a pair, which she wore during a marathon in Europe. She told us, 'They
are the best shoes I have ever worn.' And she has been a great ambassador for
us. We are now on the feet of more than 70 pro athletes around the world.
The concept and development of On shoes appears to be
following a similar path to that of Kevin Plank and Under Armour, an athlete
who saw a need, filled it and then worked hard to support its growth. Would you
make that comparison?
I would. The basic idea of On was to have a cushion landing and a power
takeoff. A big part of the inspiration came from Olivier Bernhard, one of the
three cofounders. He has competed in many triathlete and Ironman events. He
became frustrated because he didn't see a lot of innovation in the category of
running shoes, especially when it came to helping runners become more efficient
and prevent injuries. So he looked for ways to make running shoes more
efficient, more comfortable and more fun.
How long would you say from concept to reality?
It took quite a while. He worked with Swiss engineers and tested many
ideas. A problem, of course, was that the pieces of hose [he put on the shoes
while in the testing phase] would come off. So they played with the concept and
eventually came up with the On shoe and the little ports on the bottom of the
shoes we call CloudTec technology. The idea is to have a cushioned landing and
a better, stronger takeoff with each step and also to improve running, make it
more efficient and comfortable, and make it more fun. We have done that. That's
also where the [tagline] 'Run on clouds,' came from.
Nike, Adidas and others have logos that are
immediately recognized by athletes and consumers. Where did the On logo come
from and how do you think it resonates with the public?
The idea behind On is the feeling you should have when you are running. People
who were trying our shoes said they felt more turned on and were having more
fun. So the logo is an 'on' switch. Not just a light switch on a wall, but for
a computer or any device. It also has a clean, sleek look on the shoe, not
splashed on [the product] like some other companies. We believe it tells our
story and stands apart from the other logos.
What is your strategy for 2013 and beyond?
We will continue to get the word out about our shoes and continue to be in
strategic places: in marathons, Ironman competitions and triathlons, and
especially on the feet of athletes such as Caroline Steffen, David Hauss and
Ben Allen, building that core and having more athletes switch over, but also
have people who are not in the competitive marathon, running or Ironman events
try our shoe and see how it feels and how it improves their workouts and
regular daily exercise routine. When you look at marathons and Ironman and
Xterra competitions, it is not just for the intense runners. It is for anyone
who wants to test themselves and improve themselves. You used to have two
different types of shoes for two different types of people: For the average,
casual runner, there were the training shoes; for the pros there were the
competition shoes. With our technology, you now have the combination of both
worlds. It provides a cushioned landing like a training shoe, but also a firm
push-off like a competitive shoe. So you get the benefits of comfort and speed.
Do you still have any of the original pieces of garden
hose that Olivier used and tested?
No, but we do have some of the early concept shoes. I look at them and see how
far we have come and how much we have changed the thinking among athletes about
what running shoes should be.
This Q&A was reprinted with permission of