Driving Differentiation

by Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A.

- Jason Voiovich, Director of Corporate Marketing, Logic PD

Co-Branding outside of the footwear industry helps create competitive space with Nike

My 15-year old son is learning to drive.

I guess I was more terrified by the idea of him driving than the actual practice thus far, but then again, we haven’t yet strayed from empty parking lots.  Actually, one of the more challenging early lessons has been the “foot pivot”.  It’s an automatic for most drivers – so much so, that we forget how we do it.  We apply the brake and the accelerator by pivoting on our right heel.  It avoids jerky starts and stops.  That said, not every shoe makes this easy.  His Saucony running shoes have a piece of sole that extends oddly toward past the back of the shoe.  Great for running.  Tough for pivot training.

Am I the first person who’s had this problem?  Clearly not.  Driving shoes are almost as old as cars themselves.  There’s a wonderful little history in Modern Gentlemen Magazine (yes, there is such a publication) if you’re interested.  So when I saw Steve’s article on trademarking tread patterns, it seemed like a natural brand extension.  On a recent trip to Bloomington’s Mall of America for back-to-school shopping, I learned the shoe and tire companies are way ahead of me.

Just a bit of background.  As you can probably guess, the footwear industry is remarkably competitive.  Even so, the clear juggernaut is Nike with an astounding 41% share in the athletic space.  The question is pretty simple for Adidas/Reebok (yeah, one company), Puma, New Balance, Asics, and the dozens of others: How do you differentiate?  How do you carve a space in this trendy, fickle market that is unique, ownable, and valuable?

Two footwear companies are trying to do just that by linking their product with the American love affair with the automobile.  (Which doesn’t play so well overseas, by the way, but I digress).

Let’s start with Adidas and Goodyear.  Think leather cross-trainer with a variety of goofy Goodyear tread patterns on the sole with a Goodyear logo visible from the side.  I tried some on.  Grippy, for sure, but I’m not sure these are really “snow tires” if you know what I mean.  Walking outside my office in the North Loop of Minneapolis, I could see myself sliding casually in front of November traffic with only a gentle nudge and a two-degree incline.  (Hopefully, their Goodyears could stop in time…)

Quite frankly, the Goodyear partnership didn’t really seem like it was a big deal for Adidas.  Neat shoes, but little in the way of supporting cast of clothing and accessories.  Missed opportunity, perhaps.  I say that because the Puma store was a short walk away.

And Puma takes the whole car/shoe thing very seriously.

Instead of the tread pattern and tire manufacturers, Puma hooks its wagon to Ferrari and BMW.  They’ve got a whole line of shoes in varying colors and styles, clothing, and trinkets.  (Presumably, you don’t need to own said Ferrari to buy said shoes and jackets).  And yes, they are driving shoes complete with rounded back heel, and they are outwardly marketed that way, but that’s clearly not the whole point.

Puma (and Adidas to a lesser extent) is using brand halo effect to bolster its “Sport Lifestyle” brand proposition – maybe not as “athletic” as Nike, maybe not as “everyday performance” as New Balance, but maybe just enough “sport style” to carve a defensible position in a crowded space.

Does it work?  Let’s go for some scientifically unreliable anecdotal evidence.  If my 15-year old had to pick Goodyear tire treads or a BMW logo on his shoe, which do you think he would want?  Yeah.  Good guess.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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