CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- New Balance is trying to boost wobbling sales with an increased emphasis on its wider sizes and comfortable fit, focused where consumers buy running shoes: In the store.
The marketer has posted sales declines -- U.S. sales fell as little as 6.1% or as much as 28%, depending on whose numbers you believe -- coincided with sales gains in the running category by competitors such as Nike, Asics, Saucony and Mizuno. And the losses occurred in spite of a campaign from Omnicom Group's BBDO, titled "Love/Hate," which launched last March. That effort was supposed to connect with consumers who enjoy running while they're doing it but often struggle with the motivation necessary to start.
But while the campaign failed to boost sales from the same period the year before, when the brand had scarcely any advertising on the air, New Balance executives said they like the returns so far from the effort, which they said has made the brand more relevant to consumers who have become used to associating it with clearance bins.
"We'd love to see sales going through the roof after one season, but I don't think that was ever a realistic expectation," said Norma Delaney, the brand's global advertising manager. "We've seen great improvement when it comes to our relevance to younger runners and competitive athletes, and also with walkers and older consumers."
But if the brand is suddenly more relevant to a broad swath of consumers, why are sales still falling? The problem, Ms. Delaney said, has been an inability to capitalize on that new brand equity when consumers are making their purchasing decisions in stores.
She cited several steps New Balance is taking to address that, starting with a sharper focus on what the company calls its "Total Fit" philosophy, which is intended to emphasize New Balance's history as the first running brand to offer different widths of its shoes.
Beyond that, New Balance is devoting a greater percentage of its marketing budget -- which will be even with 2008 -- to in-store efforts, which will include signage, shelf talkers and even appearances by "New Balance Total Fit" specialists. The retail efforts will affect not only New Balance's own stores but also retailers and small specialty stores.
Ms. Delaney said that, having hired BBDO in October 2007, the marketer was "rushed" in preparing the campaign and focused far more on advertising than point-of-sale execution, which hurt results.
New Balance is also sharpening its media buying, restricting it to Wednesday through Saturday in order to capitalize on the lead-up to the weekend, when most consumers shop for shoes. It's also scaling back buys with broadcast outlets Fox and CBS in order to concentrate more media firepower on ESPN. "We want to have a stronger voice on fewer platforms," Ms. Delaney said.
New Balance spent $27.3 million on measured media in 2008, nearly twice its 2007 total of $14.4 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Those figures do not include internet spending, a significant channel for New Balance.
That's smart strategy, said SportsOneSource footwear analyst Matt Powell, but the brand still faces a steep challenge from a slew of strong competitors, and years of poor marketing and positioning.
Mr. Powell said years of providing basic shoes at different widths at ever-cheaper price points to retailers has given the brand a somewhat generic label that's hard to shake. "There's some wisdom in what they're trying to do, but they've let it become a commodity of sorts," he said.