Five Questions With Asics' Erik Forsell

The Running Category Is Growing, and Competition Is Getting Fierce

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It's a time of change at Asics.

With several new executives on board, and an increasingly competitive category at stake, the Japanese athletic brand is devising new strategies to stay on top. Last year Kevin Wulff, a well-known sporting goods exec was named CEO of Asics America. And in April Mr. Wulff shook up the company's marketing ranks, bringing on Erik Forsell, a veteran of the surf industry, as VP-marketing. Mr. Forsell says he's been charged with making the brand feel faster and younger, as well as evaluating every single department and piece of the business under his purvey. It's a tall order, but one that Mr. Forsell says he's up for.

Erik Forsell, VP-marketing, Asics
Erik Forsell, VP-marketing, Asics

"I love it. It's one thing to come in if everything was status quo, but it's definitely not at this point," Mr. Forsell said, during a break from activities surrounding the New York City Marathon earlier this month. "A lot of that is internal, but it's external too. The level of competition in footwear is so strong right now."

He acknowledged that competitors like Nike and Adidas have stepped it up when it comes to running product, and that their marketing has gotten "really sharp." The emergence of lightweight running has also breathed new life into the nearly $6 billion category, as brands ranging from Puma to New Balance to Reebok introduce lower profile, brightly colored looks.

"[It's like] they all looked and said, 'Why does Asics have so much share in running? Maybe we should go after those guys again,'" Mr. Forsell said. "There's fierce competition in running right now."

For that reason, Asics' new ad campaign featuring the mantra "Stop at Never" seems particularly resonant. Launched just before the New York City Marathon, the campaign will run throughout 2012 and include TV, digital media, print and social media. Ad agency Vitro leads creative for Asics America, as well as globally. Asics is currently reviewing its global account, however, and expects to select an agency in December. Vitro is participating in that review.

Here, Mr. Forsell talks about how Asics is battling the competition and why the "last five feet of retail" are critically important.

Ad Age : What are you doing to stay ahead of the competition?

Mr. Forsell: For the past decade it's really been about brand awareness, so that we're in their consideration set. You look at the elevated levels of brand awareness, it's been awesome, just a rocket ship. So with that we've set ourselves up to really focus on the product. It's a change for us, so you'll see the hero shots of shoes, with information about the exact technology that 's in the shoe and why we feel its better. We've always done that to a certain extent. It was the icing on the cake, but now it's going to be the cake. Our shoes are brighter and bolder. They're lower profile. They look faster and younger. We want to give people permission to wear Asics with jeans, out on the streets. Everything we do is performance, but the goal with the new looks is to give people permission to wear them when they're not running. Yes, you can wear it to the grocery store, but you can also run a marathon in them. We don't want to go as far over as Puma, where we're all about style. We're going to do both, but we'll never stop being a performance brand.

Ad Age : What impact do the product changes have on marketing?

Mr. Forsell: The marketing is going to get younger. Our media mix is changing a little bit. We're going to be a little more digitally focused. We've built up social media and basically revamped all of our digital touch points, whether it's the marathon website or our own site or the Facebook page. With media placement we're going to get a little more aggressive, go a little harder after males in media. You'll see some college-sports placement, for example. [We'll have] a little sharper tone in our copy and ads. It's not a dramatic shift, it's still all about "Sound Mind, Sound Body." We're just going to edge it up a little bit.

Ad Age : What mandates has CEO Kevin Wulff given you as the new head of marketing?

Mr. Forsell: Look at every single department, go around and stress test every piece. One of our big focuses right now is the last five feet of retail. We feel like we can run great creative, tell a great story from PR, but there's so much that happens in the last five feet. When [the shopper] sees a fixture or talks to the salesperson on the floor and looks at the shoes he or she is wearing. That's been a big focus for us, and that 's the next big hurdle for us, to really own those last few pieces. It's tough; some of our competitors are really good at it. Some of it is just fixture design. Some of it is just how bright and bold your creative might be on the wall. Some of it is seeding product, making sure the salespeople have the product on their feet, so that when a customer asks about it, they can say, 'Yeah, I'm wearing it. I've run in it, and it's great.' We've always seeded product, but now we're going to get more surgical about it. Who's getting it? Why do we put it on their feet? How can they influence people? There are a lot of self-serve environments too, so we're looking at things like QR codes on the boxes. And we're looking at things like field tech rep forces, to get people out on the streets. It's a long chain to get from what we're thinking to what that salesperson at Dick's [has coming] out of his or her mouth.

Ad Age : The New York City Marathon is the biggest event you do. What trends are you seeing with marathons?

Mr. Forsell: We just signed a new triathlete. We've seen a lot of growth in running in the past few years, but we feel that some of these runners are looking to what's next. Our campaign we're launching is , "Stop at Never." It's all about how you never stop pushing and trying to be your best. Marathons have been so big, but we think there's a big contingency of people who are asking, "What's next? I've run 26.2 miles, but can I swim and bike also?" I don't think the growth in marathons is going to stop, but I think it's going to lead to the next phase of growth for other things: triathlons, endurance running. Our head of global marketing just ran a 100k race. Even he's wondering how he can push himself even further.

Ad Age : Where did the idea for "Stop at Never" come from?

Mr. Forsell: We were sitting in some meetings and Kevin [Wulff] was saying he's been to Super Bowls and the Indianapolis 500 and countless NBA finals, basically every major sporting event. And he said the one that 's stuck with him more than any of them was being at the finish line of the New York City Marathon last year. Just the raw emotion and passion that came out of people when they crossed that finish line he said was breathtaking to him. Whether it was born from him or not, I feel like it started there. We wanted to really capture that emotion. [The campaign uses] real photographs of real people finishing marathons. We tried to capture that raw emotion. "Stop at Never" is about when you finish the race, you're not done; you're reborn.

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