New Balance, the footwear brand once associated with normcore dads everywhere, is now rubbing shoulders in some luxury circles.
Thursday morning in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, the sneaker brand’s chief marketing officer Chris Davis joined Highsnobiety thought leaders for a panel called “The New Luxury, Navigating What’s Next”.
According to Davis, the secret to elevating New Balance from a run-of-the-mill sneaker label to an in-demand premium brand is to collaborate with relevant tastemakers and culture keepers while putting core values front and center.
“To us, purpose can’t be its own separate thing; it has to be totally integrated into every business strategy practice you have,” Davis told the panel that included Highsnobiety publisher and founder David Fischer, Beckett Fogg, CEO of Area, a New York City fashion and accessories design studio, and hosted by Sarah Willersdorf, managing director of the Boston Consulting Group. “That purpose has to be at the core of everything we do, and that could be philanthropy, it could be sustainability.”
Those collaborations, which drop almost weekly, have helped raise the Boston-based company’s profile from an affordably reliable running shoe, to a brand pitched by the endorsement odd couple of Kawhi Leonard and Jack Harlow shooting hoops on a rooftop blacktop, the former firing a chest pass into the camera with the hip slogan, “We Got Now.”
Long before that, New Balance was building its new image at the grassroots level, which Davis said is especially critical for a global brand trying to connect locally.
Davis said one of his favorite collaborations was a partnership with Figs, a women-owned medical apparel company that sought to enhance the fashion, on-the-job-functionality and comfort experience of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals.
“Obviously there’s a tremendous amount of hype culture associated with the drops… but it’s important to connect with communities that promote stylistic expressions to those communities,” Davis said. “To help doctors and nurses and all medical professionals be more comfortable and fashion-forward when they’re helping us in the hospital.”
“It had become obsolete and downtrodden, but we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to not only drop core products, but more importantly to serve the children of that community,” Davis said. “To allow those children to have runs in the gym and really make it a better place to congregate and have that lower east side location for basketball and cultural integration.”
Pointing to a collaboration with more of a philanthropic/PR bent than anything material, Davis cited a partnership to restore a once prominent gym for pickup basketball on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side, consistent with the brand’s decades-long dedication to fighting childhood obesity by contributing more than $120 million to partnerships that promote healthy children and families.
Most recently, New Balance jumped into a collaboration with Men’s Fashion Week in Paris, where the company revamped two outdoor courts in the city center.
But one of New Balance’s most notable collabs is with Chicago-based shoe designer Joe Freshgoods to create what the sneaker company describes as “a collaborative partnership with ‘Performance Art,’” with proceeds from each sale going to local art programs.
“We often look to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit with our collabs and grant our collaborators their first ever products, whether that’s Salahe Bembury, Joe Freshgoods or Emily [Ratajkowski] on tour,” Davis said. “We really like to elevate new flavors in the stylistic world and cross-pollinate our brands to reach new communities and engage customers.”
Collaborations, however, are just half of the plan for brand transformation. The rest, Davis says, is the right endorsement partners, though that doesn’t mean signing celebrities who will immediately connect with a more fashionable audience.
“We try to find individuals who have a fiercely independent mindset, an independent style,” Davis told Sourcing Journal after the panel. “That could be not caring what people think; it’s those who value independence and free-thinking individuals we align ourselves with as a brand. In the entertainment space, that could be a Jack Harlow, Jaden Smith or Storm Reid; in athletics it could be a Kawhi Leonard or Coco Gauff or Raheem Sterling, collaboration partners that we can associate with across the platform.”
Davis said every New Balance endorsement contract comes with a requirement that any individual, team or league give back to its own community in like ways.
Being applauded for altruism, or accepted as cool is one thing; but being considered a “new luxury” brand by Highsnobiety is another entirely.
“Over the course of last four or five years we’ve really penetrated the luxury space, in particular with our Made in the USA, Made in the UK, Made in Tokyo studio design reflections,” Davis said. “We’re definitely on the forefront of design fashion in the footwear space. I think customers really want that authenticity and premium crafted product we provide and have been providing through history.”
Thursday’s discussion surrounding “new luxury” focused on the challenges big-ticket brands will face in the months and years to come with a pending recession, and an intensifying focus on sustainability and functionality, putting New Balance in what could be a favorable position.
“The ‘cultural pioneer’ is something we’ve been obsessed with, and what we’ve been witnessing for a while is that person is now a lot more mindful about how they shop, what they shop and what they really care about. People want a product that last, is more timeless,” Fischer said. “We see that consumer want a different kind of sneaker, something more simple. New Balance is a lot more timeless, premium type of shoe… It’s really a bit of a coming of age for that consumer—buying less, buying better and really investing in the right places.”
Concerns of austerity, more responsible consumption and the rise of Gen Z consumers spending their parents’ money, all play right into the hands of a brand like New Balance.
“It’s an interesting dichotomy that in times of economic turmoil people revert to trusted brands and New Balance is certainly a trusted brand,” Davis said. “Also, in those times we see people spending more time exercising, running, being outside and those are two macrofactors conducive to the acceleration of our business. Gen Z consumers are spending a lot of not-their-money, minimum wages are higher than ever before, and that [Gen Z] consumer doesn’t have mortgages, car payments, not concerned about insurance, taking a lot of public transportation. What’s providing that consumer social currency is directly tied to their stylistic expression. For us, that’s style in sneakers and clothing.”