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Asics on keeping pace with the coronavirus ‘running boom’

Lockdown has led to people who have never jogged before lacing up their trainers and hitting the nearest pavement. And, it has led to brands like Asics having to find fast ways to deal with increased demand for their gear. Here, its top European marketer explains how it has been shifting its marketing strategy to keep up.

When it comes to moving experiences online, Asics is a brand that has been on the front foot since the coronavirus pandemic first struck.

When lockdown was initially imposed in Japan (the sports brand’s home market), it had big plans to host global media at its campus in Kobe for the launch of a new shoe. In the space of a few weeks, this was quickly retuned as a virtual reality (VR) experience, carefully designed to allow journalists from 19 different countries try on the product via an Oculus Quest headset.

But this experiment was just one small part of a wider move from the advertiser to move physical experiences (and most of its ad budgets) online. In March, it launched its ‘United Yet United’ campaign, encouraging locked-in runners to share photos of their shoes in solidarity with those battling fear and anxiety amid isolation. When the brand realised lockdown was going to rumble on, it quickly moved to launch a ‘Sound Mind, Sound Body’ programme focused on mental wellbeing, as well as making its exercise app Asics Studio for free.

Since Covid-19 struck, Asics has seen a huge shift in both its retail and marketing strategies. And the lessons it has gleaned from this will carry on long after the public health crisis.

“There’s been a big shift from real world activities to digital ones,” explains Gary Raucher, the brand’s executive vice-president of category for EMEA, pointing out that the brand would usually rely on now-cancelled events such as the Paris Marathon and the Olympics to drive awareness.

“We’ve had to adjust to the situation, move away from physical events and instead do things virtually,” he says, pointing to April’s VR media experience.

In conversation with The Drum’s executive editor Stephen Lepitak during The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, Raucher says: “All of the products we’ve launched in that way have been received really well. So I’m really glad to see that kind of creativity and innovation come through, not only in how we build our products but in how we take them to market.“

Keeping pace with a ‘running boom’

Raucher says that, for now, Asics has shifted “almost all” of its marketing investments online in order to drive traffic to the sneaker maker’s own e-commerce sites and drive direct sales. However, he acknowledges that there’s also been a big focus on indirect sales through the brand’s wholesale and premium online partners.

“It’s not just about trying to get more people to buy directly from Asics. We want to make sure that people are buying our products wherever they’re available. We’ve seen a huge spike in online.”

Amid several “record” weeks for sales, Raucher has been ensuring that the brand’s supply chain can keep pace with its marketing strategy by introducing weekly meetings between his own team and the online sales team.

“In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen sales exceed the levels we see on Black Friday. There’s been a huge shift to online, especially in the running category. Since they have been restricted from going to the gym or playing tennis, more people have turned to running as a way to look after their physical health as well as their mental wellbeing.”

He’s right. Asics’ own data shows that its Runkeeper app (which lets people track their runs and progress) has seen a 252% year-on-year increase in sign-ups. A study of 14,000 regular exercisers across 12 countries conducted by the business found that 78% of runners say that being active during the pandemic has made them feel more ‘in control’, while 82% said running plays a key role in helping them ‘clear their mind’.

“We really have seen a bit of a running boom,” Raucher says, “which is good news for us because that’s what is at our core.”

Rediscovering purpose

72% UK of runners told Asics that they want to continue running after the Covid-19 pandemic comes to an end. 62% of global runners said the same.For Raucher, the acceleration of e-commerce in this period has also equipped his brand with fresh habits that it wants to carry over post-lockdown.

Though stores have tentatively started reopening across the globe (albeit with social distancing measures in place), he believes reduced foot traffic is “here to stay” and that the business will have to capitalise on online shoppers.

“The key to success in this new digital world is agility and, if you look at how we’ve pivoted in the past few weeks, we’ve been trying to stay on the pulse of the situation.”

After shifting its focus to online experiences and mental health, the next phase of Asics’ lockdown campaign will be to focus on helping customers find the right running gear.

The 71-year-old brand will also be looking to hone in on its purpose post-Covid-19, in order to take a slice of a global sports apparel market currently dominated by Nike and Adidas.

To do this, Raucher says it wants to celebrate its founder, Kihachiro Onitsuka, who in the aftermath of WWII retired from his career as a bootleg beer seller to start his own business in Japan making basketball shoes, which eventually evolved to be Asics in 1977.

The brand’s name is an acronym for ‘Anima sana in corpore sano’ — a Latin motto meaning ‘A sound mind in a sound body’.

“A lot of people don’t know that,” says Raucher. “Where a lot of brands in this industry are about winning at all costs, we’ve always believed that the actual benefit of sport is the physical activity. It’s not about the individual glory, it is about the lasting impact that sport has on your mental wellbeing.

“We’re going to be putting greater emphasis on making sure that people understand we’re a caregiver brand from Japan, which are two really relevant and credible differentiators.”

Raucher spoke with executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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