Earlier this month, Swiss running shoe brand On celebrated its IPO, following in the footsteps of established industry giants like Nike and Adidas. The news confirmed the arrival of a company that was founded in 2010 but rose to prominence through bold product design and intelligent branding. In an article last year, I noted that On (and his rival Hoka) was one of the big winners in a pandemic-inspired running boom, with more sales increasing. by 50% compared to 2019. According to official data included in its IPO. F-1, On’s net sales in the first half of 2021 are up 86.4% from the same auspicious time in 2020. Obviously, they’re doing something right.
But what, exactly? How to explain the success of a company with a rather banal name and hieroglyphic logo? It’s showcasing its national heritage – “Born in the Swiss Alps” is a corporate slogan – which seems like a winning decision if it was selling milk chocolate or banking software. But when it comes to launching a trendy new running shoe with a flamboyant new concept of cushioning, building your image in a country known for its staid efficiency seems like a riskier proposition. (There might be some regional bias at play here; I grew up in Vienna, Austria, where a common joke is that our sprawling central cemetery is about half the size of Zurich and twice as fun.)
On’s most prominent benefactor is none other than Roger Federer, who invested an undisclosed amount in the company in 2019 and whose reserved demeanor appears to affirm the national stereotype. Then again, the mild-mannered tennis maestro could be the ultimate example of how a meticulous, calculated approach can deliver not only success, but a kind of transcendent beauty as well. Maybe the traders are right. and the quintessence of On Swissness is the company’s greatest asset.
Larry Eder seems to think so. Co-founder of RunBlogRun and former editor of Running Network’s biannual shoe review, Eder is the biggest running shoe lover I know. He recalls being shocked to learn that On’s management had a ten-year plan in place when he met some of the team when they launched in the US in 2013 – a level of foresight that, according to Eder, you don’t often see with American shoe startups. When pitching the idea of using social media as a way to reach operating stores, Eder was told that this step was already planned for year three. (Due to a “period of silence” after the company-wide IPO, no On employees were able to interview for this article.)
However, methodical planning will not get you far.
“The quality of the product is really good,” Eder told me. “I asked my friends at Nike, Adidas and Puma to try on the shoes and love them, reluctantly. They say the technology is really simple, but it works.
This technology is a cushioning system dubbed “CloudTec”, made up of individual hollow rubber pods that nail the sole. The result is a loosely clinging figure. While Nike’s founding myth centers on University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman snooping around with a waffle iron, the story here is that a retired Swiss triathlete named Olivier Bernhard had his eureka moment by cutting a garden hose and attaching the pieces to the base. of his sneakers. Bernhard, who is one of the three co-founders of On, was not happy with all the running shoes on the market and felt he could do better. Things got off to a promising start. One of On’s first prototypes won the Best New Product award at ISPO 2010, the world’s largest sportswear trade show. At the time, the sector publication SNEWS (now Journal of External Affairs) noted that the shoe’s separate padding looked “like short rigatoni pasta glued to the sides”.
Love it or hate it, the rigatoni look is hard to ignore. David Gettis, area manager for the current JackRabbit chain of stores, told me that with Hoka, we inspire curiosity like no other brand, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that “nine customers out of ten ”cannot decipher what the logo is supposed to say. Some of that curiosity can probably be attributed to On’s status as a relative newcomer, but it also seems to be a question of style. “They have an aesthetic that’s very different from all the other running shoes,” says Gettis. “Not just the way the lower part is divided into different sections, but the way the upper looks sharper and the logo isn’t as big.”
Gettis also mentioned that On’s colourways have become noticeably more subdued in recent years. When i spoke with Matt powell, the resident shoe industry expert at market research firm NPD, he told me that we had a lot of followers with the non-current fashion contingent. Per Powell, it was a conscious strategy from the start. (At the risk of revealing too much about myself, I admit that the first time I remember seeing On was in Huckberry, the online store and “newspaper” where decadent city dwellers can buy their canvas trucker jackets and their Alaskan fishing boots.)
Currently, the US market represents about half of On’s business; last year, the company recorded approximately $ 218 million in sales in the United States, according to the F-1 report. Although the brand initially focused on selling its products through specialty stores like JackRabbit, its direct-to-consumer business has grown steadily and currently accounts for just under 40% of worldwide sales. Most of these are from e-commerce, although last year On opened a new flagship store in New York, which I recently visited.
The space has a sparse, futuristic feel; There is a 3D printed facsimile of an Alpine rock that is believed to symbolize the synthesis of technological innovation, appreciation of the natural world and Swiss charisma. There is a digitalized foot scanner to help you find your correct shoe size, as well as a “Magic Wall”, which, through some kind of hyper-sophisticated video analysis, can provide you with instant gait analysis and recommend the perfect shoe. My profile was “Strider,” which is a nice way to say I’m a chronic hooker, doomed to mediocrity in the middle of the pack or at least a lifetime of very unflattering race photos.
While I was in the store, I was assisted by David Kilgore, a marketing manager at On, who also happens to be a small-scale celebrity in the local running scene known for those fun-type feats. II by setting several fastest known times on the 31-mile loop around Manhattan.
The fact that Kilgore works for the company speaks to another aspect of On’s strategy that the company’s IPO report specifically alludes to: the focus on local marketing. It’s hard to think of a better local brand ambassador than a guy who represented Team USA at the 2019 World Trail Running Championships, whose extremely mellow vibe is the perfect antidote to Swiss (or New York) rigidity. ).
On the professional side, the focus on grassroots is evident in the On Athletics Club, an elite running team launched last year and based in Boulder, Colorado. The team, coached by recently retired professional runner Dathan Ritzenhein, already has several recent Olympians on its short list, including US 10,000-meter specialists Alicia Monson and Joe Klecker.
“Their athletes have done a phenomenal job in just a year,” Eder told me, adding that On’s track club reminded him of a less outraged version of Athletic West, the Nike-sponsored pro team for years. 70’s and 80’s which featured a jogging boom. stars like Frank Shorter and Alberto Salazar. “We are doing what all the successful brands have done, which is supporting the grassroots on the professional side. By doing this, they are able to capture the dream.
This ambitious philosophy is evident in other areas of On’s business as well. A major bet here is “the Cyclon,” a fully recyclable, plant-based running shoe that was originally slated to launch this fall, but which recent COVID-induced supply chain issues have postponed. The shoes will only be available through a subscription model, in which customers pay $ 30 per month and receive new pairs when they need them, while also returning the used product. It’s a radical idea, the success of which will ultimately depend on the buy-in of enough people to make the concept viable. Notably, the Cyclon does not have CloudTec, probably because a more complex design prevents making an easily recyclable product.
If you’re optimistic, the company’s recent IPO will give it the financial resources to boost such sustainability-focused projects. Of course, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that there might be an inherent conflict between being responsible both to the planet and an anonymous contingent of shareholders that demands endless growth and profitability. Perhaps, however, that a fully recyclable shoe provides a potential answer to the inevitable constraint that all “green” clothing companies inevitably face: How do you convince people to consume less while buying more of your product? It is time for this much-vaunted Swiss efficiency to show what it is capable of.