The Brand Management Efforts of a Niche Specialist: New Balance in the Athletic Footwear Industry. (the Brand Management Efforts of a Niche Specialist)

By Gladden, James M.; McDonald, Mark A. | International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship, June-July 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Brand Management Efforts of a Niche Specialist: New Balance in the Athletic Footwear Industry. (the Brand Management Efforts of a Niche Specialist)


Gladden, James M., McDonald, Mark A., International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship


Keywords: Brand management, Brand equity, Niche marketing, Athletic footwear

Executive Summary

Strategic brand management is employed by organizations to maximize long-term growth and profitability. Nowhere is brand management more important than in the highly competitive athletic footwear industry. Given the wide variety of athletic footwear available, shoppers often rely on brand names to assist in their purchase decision. Industry research suggests 50% of shoppers shop with a brand name in mind (Silverman, 1998). Thus, it is imperative that athletic footwear manufacturers cultivate awareness and strong associations with their brands if they are to ensure long-term success.

To date, analyses of the athletic footwear industry (e.g. Katz, 1994; Strasser & Becklund, 1993) have focused on industry leaders, such as Nike, Reebok, and Adidas. In contrast, this study highlights the brand management of a successful niche competitor in athletic footwear, New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. In an industry experiencing a leveling of growth, New Balance revenues have increased 150% during the mid-1990s. Utilizing Aaker (1991) framework for understanding brand equity, this study illustrates how New Balance has achieved such growth leveraging its limited resources by focusing on two specific niches (running shoes and width sizing) in the United States athletic footwear market. While particular interest is paid to the branding efforts of New Balance, it is done within the broader context of understanding how a small niche player can successfully compete in a segment dominated by much larger publicly-owned companies. In addition to academic research and industry statistics, this study utilizes perso nal interviews with New Balance Athletic Shoe personnel to better understand the practices of a niche competitor in a highly competitive industry.

The results of this study lead to four recommendations for brand managers of both niche specialists and market leaders in the sporting goods industry. First, niche specialists must seek controlled, rather than rapid, growth using creative segmentation efforts. Second, niche competitors should study their larger competitors for signs of fragmentation and dilution, and capitalize on the resulting opportunities. Third, it is possible to drive brand identity in the sporting goods industry using an organization's values and social responsibility. Fourth, the cultivation of a salient identity takes time, particularly in the case of a niche specialist. Therefore, the brand manager must be patient with well-founded brand strategies.

Introduction

One per cent per year -- the overall US market share growth goal recently stated by New Balance CEO Jim Davis (Steven David, Product Marketing Manager, New Balance, personal interview, August 18, 1998). Such a goal would be quite modest for one of its larger publicly owned competitors. But for New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc, a privately-owned manufacturer in the highly-competitive athletic footwear industry, this represents a significant brand management challenge. No longer can the company be content to serve its loyal base of "baby boomers" (40- to 55-year-olds), it now must court "Generation X"(25- to 35-year-olds).

This study illustrates the brand management efforts of a niche specialist, New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, New Balance is a privately-held corporation whose 1998 estimated revenues of $550 million amounted to less than industry leader Nike spent on advertising in that year. While particular interest is paid to the branding efforts of New Balance, its efforts are analyzed in comparison to those of the three market leaders, publicly-owned corporations Nike, Reebok, and Adidas.

This case study is comprised of five sections. The first section provides a brief overview of brand theory. The second section highlights the current status and trends of the athletic footwear industry in the United States.

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