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When Kawhi Leonard became a sneaker free agent last year after his endorsement deal with Jordan Brand expired, he sat down and met with members of the New Balance Hoops team. Leonard had a lot of questions he wanted answered. While New Balance is established as a performance and lifestyle brand in other categories, they had not been in the basketball sneaker space since Los Angeles Lakers star James Worthy wore their shoes in the 1980s.
Patrick Cassidy, global digital brand marketing director of New Balance, was one of the people answering those questions. Having joined the company more than five years ago after previously being a co-founder of Dime Magazine, a basketball publication, Cassidy explained New Balance’s vision of re-entering the basketball space, a plan that had been in the works for more than three years.
During that time, the New Balance team had surveyed the market and came up with a long-term plan. Part of that plan was to align themselves with athletes that could tell a different story than the current narratives being pushed in the marketplace. The goal wasn’t to unseat Nike and Jordan Brand for the highest market share in the basketball sneaker space, it was to shift away from what everyone else was doing and create something that was sustainable over the long run.
“There’s a graveyard full of brands who have tried to do it the same way,” Cassidy said. “They get as many pairs [of shoes] out as possible, sign as many players as possible. It puts them in a short-sighted, no-win situation. The same brands enter basketball, disappear, enter, and come back. That’s not what we’re going to do. We don’t want to be the biggest. We want to be the best.”
Quality over quantity was a main talking point of New Balance’s strategy. Instead of signing as many athletes as possible, they narrowed the list down to a handful of players they thought would fit the brand’s basketball vision. New Balance started by signing Darius Bazley, a Princeton high school standout who decided to forego the collegiate process and skip an entire year of basketball to prepare for the 2019 NBA draft. As part of his endorsement deal, Bazley earned a $1 million internship at New Balance.
When Leonard became available in the market, Cassidy saw the opportunity to form a partnership with one of the players on his short list. He explained all of the above to the Toronto Raptors star. “He was engaged from our first conversation,” Cassidy said.
He had read all of the criticism about Leonard, his critics wondering whether his preference to retreat from the spotlight and stay away from social media would make him difficult to market, let alone be the face of a brand. Some saw Leonard’s personality as a detriment. Cassidy and New Balance disagreed.
“We were not going to make him something that he’s not,” Cassidy said. “It was important to drive home how different he is.”
In November 2018, New Balance announced their multi-year endorsement deal with Leonard. Several months later, at NBA All-Star weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, New Balance released their first ad campaign involving Leonard.
In the ad, Leonard stands in a room with New Balance apparel as text appears on screen describing how different he is. References are made to his aversion to attention and how he doesn’t need the cameras.
At one point, Leonard’s famously large hands cover the camera lens to make the point apparent. “Kawhi doesn’t need to get your attention,” the ad says, as Leonard motions a finger to his mouth to shush everyone. “He already has it.” Over the 40 seconds, Leonard didn’t say a single word. The ad went viral on the Internet. Leonard debuted New Balance’s basketball shoe, the OMN1, at the All-Star Game that Sunday.
The most unlikely face of a basketball sneaker brand had found his home.
An off-court subplot of this NBA season has been the re-entry of sneaker brands back into the basketball space. While Nike, Jordan Brand and Adidas still dominate when it comes to signature models and number of NBA players who wear their sneakers, the market has become increasingly competitive. In these playoffs, Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid are hooping in their Under Armour sneakers. Danny Green and Terry Rozier wear their Pumas. Leonard showed off several new colourways of his New Balance sneaker in the first round against the Orlando Magic.
There’s a simple explanation for why brands are trying to get into the basketball sneaker space. Thanks to its crossover into mainstream pop culture and brands collaborating with high profile celebrities (Nike and Jordan Brand with Travis Scott and Drake, Adidas partnering with Kanye West and recently announcing a deal with Beyonce), and an expanding resell market, the demand for sneakers has never been higher.
Entering the market space is the easy part, more difficult is figuring out how to stay. Companies must carve out a product and marketing campaign that separates brands from their competitors. While sneakers have become a lifestyle item to many consumers, the performance aspect of it can’t be overlooked.
Despite the early success of Leonard’s marketing campaign, Cassidy knows having a sneaker that performs well is just as important as all of the other external factors that goes into elevating the brand. “This basketball shoe is an obsessive pursuit of performance,” Cassidy said. “You want people to be into the design, the look, the colours, but there’s not pressure to make it so people say, hey, this is something that can be a fashion piece.”
In February, Duke’s Zion Williamson—the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft—faced off against the North Carolina Tar Heels in a highly-anticipated matchup. Less than a minute into the game, he planted his left foot and his Nike Paul George 2.5 sneakers, a shoe worn by many college and NBA players, exploded. Williamson suffered a mild right knee sprain. The exploding shoe became a national story and Nike saw a $1.1 billion drop in their stock value immediately after the incident.
It launched a nationwide discussion on the performance of one of Nike’s best-selling basketball shoes. Nike reacted by sending a team to Durham, North Carolina the day after the game. The same team travelled in China to find a solution for Williamson, who returned and wore a pair of Kyrie 4s, and thanked Nike for the opportunity. A crisis was averted.
Brands like Nike have such a strong reputation in the marketplace that incidents such as Williamson’s exploding shoe has very little impact on their long-term success. But for other brands entering the space, creating the best performing sneaker becomes an obsessive pursuit, because it’s often the only edge a brand can find in the marketplace.
Under Armour is one example. With Curry as their signature athlete, they’ve been able to make a dent in the basketball sneaker space, even if the shoes have not always been aesthetically pleasing. In 2016, the Internet was set ablaze when initial photos of the Curry 2 signature model were released. The underwhelming design was relentlessly mocked by everyone.
Behind the scenes, though, Under Armour has a dedicated team that works with all of their athletes to help them find every edge possible when it comes to performance, and that extends from footwear to apparel. The strategy for Under Armour is to tell consumers: if world class athletes like Curry are using our technology to perform at the highest level, these are products that are worth considering.
Under Armour has a performance lab in Portland where athletes drop in and work with in-house experts to tailor everything from what they’re wearing to their sleep schedule. Their most recent technological breakthrough, called UA Rush, is used on a new apparel line which helps capture a body’s heat and transmit the energy back via infrared radiation to give athletes an advantage in the recovery process.
Curry and other athletes are using this technology, and Under Armour is betting that consumers will want to understand the science behind the product and want these benefits as well.
“We’re not selling the ingredients because the consumers just want a great tasting cake,” said Paul Winsper, director of athletic performance for Under Armour. “They’re not bothered by the eggs, or the sugar. I’m not sure they want to dive into all of the science, but if they know enough about it, they feel good. I think consumers are more aware and they can feel the difference. They’re looking for a difference.”
Dejan Pralica is the co-founder of Sole Savy and Kicks Deals and has been working with major sneaker brands for more than a decade. He agrees with Winsper. “Too many brands think an expensive marketing campaign and an exclusive party can ignite a product,” Pralica said. “On social media, you might notice a rise of influencers receiving products from brands, but the product has to actually work.”
Not everyone agrees with Winsper and Pralica. While there is a segment in the marketplace who does value performance over everything else, having a stylistically pleasing product does take precedent for others. It is the reason why you are more likely to see Nike and Adidas sneakers on your social media feeds.
Jay Shaung attended college in Baltimore and now lives in Shanghai, China, and has been a sneaker enthusiast for decades while paying close attention to evolving trends both in North America and overseas. Even though their technology might be more advanced than Nike and Adidas, their items are less attractive,” Shuang said of Under Armour. “Most people are willing to sacrifice performance for looks. I personally would rather give up some performance tech in order to look good and feel fashion forward.”
Brands re-entering the basketball sneaker space have shifted their focus towards the fashion forward aspect. Converse—whose basketball shoes were worn by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas in the 1980s—announced their comeback into the space earlier this month with the Converse All-Star Pro BB model, which took a year for the in-house team to create. They also signed an endorsement deal with Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. earlier this season.
Puma has also been very conscious about turning their basketball brand into something that’s considered cool by the younger demographic, hiring Jay Z as their creative director which has helped them enter into partnerships with Meek Mill, Yo Gotti and the late Nipsey Hussle.
The tug and pull between making a basketball sneaker that performs and looks good is why Leonard’s partnership with New Balance is such a fascinating test case for a brand’s re-entry into this space. Because it will also help answer the question whether a signature athlete can in fact help shape the identity of an entire brand.
“What an athlete can do for a brand varies,” Pralica said. “For example, Kawhi for Jordan Brand isn’t nearly as impactful as Kawhi is for New Balance. It raises New Balance’s profile greatly and at least requires us to pay attention to what they do.”
With Leonard, New Balance might have stumbled upon an athlete who seems perfectly suited for today’s marketplace despite his aversion to ever being in the public eye. Leonard has remarkably become arguably the most viral player in the entire NBA. Every single thing he does, a laugh, a non-answer, an appearance on his teammate’s YouTube cooking show, is immediately shared across the Internet.
His impending free agency this summer and speculation that he will likely join the Los Angeles Clippers has only heightened interest in the 27-year-old superstar. Everything he says (and doesn’t say) is parsed and dissected every day.
Leonard’s basketball sneaker has been worn on court for several months now, but they’ve yet to be made available for purchase. Cassidy says this fits with New Balance Hoops’ long-term plan to make product available to retailers by fall of this year, although he did hint that there would be some “very special opportunities coming shortly” for fans of Leonard and his sneakers.
Leonard has been heavily involved in all of the designs of his signature sneakers, as well as the stories he wants to tell with the shoes, which has shown an artistic side to him that people might not know about. “He’s a super creative guy,” Cassidy said. “He’s got very specific ideas and we want to make them come to life.”
One specific model, a Jurassic Park-themed shoe Leonard wore against the Charlotte Hornets in late March, caught the attention of Raptors fans, who are looking for every single sign that Leonard might consider re-signing with Toronto long-term this summer. Cassidy wanted to caution against reading too much into the particular shoe.
“He’s involved in all our designs,” Cassidy said. “But I don’t want people to take it to mean that he’s wearing [a Raptors-themed shoe] and that means he’s staying. I don’t want to make it sound like he’s sending messages with the designs.”
Wherever Leonard ends up next season, the partnership with New Balance is just beginning. The brand has re-entered the basketball sneaker space with the signature athlete who they believe provides a perfect fit.
But as more brands re-enter the market, even with performance enhancements and lifestyle improvements to every sneaker, it begs the question: is there enough demand to meet all of the increased supply, and is there enough space for every brand to succeed?
The answers to those questions remains to be seen.
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