NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It isn't easy to reinvent a 75-year-old company, especially with a product that people have deemed "ugly" and "disgusting," but that's exactly what Vibram has done in the past few years with its FiveFingers shoes brand.
The Italian rubber-sole maker's U.S. affiliate, based in Concord, Mass., has taken off running with its line of thin, stretchy fitness shoes that emulate being barefoot, aided by recent research on the benefits of barefoot training.
Vibram USA President-CEO Tony Post, a longtime runner, was training for a marathon in 2005 when he injured his knee and had to have surgery. After doctors recommended he stop running, Mr. Post decided to try out a prototype "barefoot" shoe developed by Robert Fliri and Marco Bramani (Vibram founder Vitale Bramani's grandson). While Messrs. Fliri and Bramani's shoe wasn't created for sport, after Mr. Post found himself running seven miles in them with no knee pain, a new idea was born.
"We knew we needed to develop a positioning and decided on fitness training," Mr. Post said. "Sneakers limit your range of motion and don't let you get feedback from the environment. The idea was that the product would strengthen muscles in the foot and lower leg."
While FiveFingers began a PR campaign in January 2006, the company found its first consumer advocate in "Barefoot" Ted McDonald, a barefoot enthusiast who ran the Boston Marathon in FiveFingers that April. News of the shoes began to spread quickly online; and by June 2006, Vibram was sold out of the product. In 2007, Time named FiveFingers one of the best inventions of the year.
With no traditional advertising to date, Vibram FiveFingers has grown from about 10,000 pairs sold in 2006 to 1.5 million pairs of shoes sold in the past year, with products tailored for activities from yoga to kayaking. It is projected to double those numbers in 2011, said Mr. Post.
Vibram will begin print advertising this month to get visitors to its microsite, YouAretheTechnology.com. Created by Nail, a Providence, R.I.-based agency, the site demonstrates how the human body is built for running.