Youth marketing 101

Many athletic shoe company managers expect the market to improve in 1995 and are aggressively targeting the young adult market. Tactics include grassroots programs to get young people involved in sports, catering to youth’s taste for novelty with more frequent introduction of new styles, and offering more conservatively-priced shoes as well as brooks shoes for high arches suitable for individualistic pursuits such as skateboarding.

This year promises a bold collection of new athletic footwear styles, maybe exciting enough to coax the teenage and young adult market out of their Doc Martens and rugged hikers.

Over the past few seasons, athletic shoes have been overshadowed by the runaway performance of outdoor shoes, a category which saw wholesale sales increase 63 percent to more than $325 million in 1993, according to SGMA market research.

While the outdoor boom has yet to peak, many athletic shoe company executives are predicting an uptrend in the sneaker market in 1995. If true, they should be ready for it. This fall, manufacturers are presenting some of the most forward-styled athletic shoes for bunions and flat feet in some time — from exoskeletal upper designs to aggressive outsoles to the kind of gold touches not seen since the mid-’80s. They are styles likely to capture the attention of the pre-teen through young adult market (ages 11 to 24), a group that accounted for a quarter of all athletic footwear purchases in 1993 — or $11 billion at retail, according to SGMA/Footwear Market Insights research.

However, while the styling is bold — and the reign of the celebrity athlete-as-spokesperson is far from over as big spenders like Nike and Reebok can afford to maintain high media profiles–many manufacturers are also taking more subtle approaches to reaching customers. They are relying on grassroots programs to keep more young people involved in sports; getting to know the changing habits and preferences of teenagers and Generation Xers, and focusing the spotlight on credible performance product that is not overwhelmed by technology. “You cannot hard sell your product,” said Mickey Bell, president of Converse, of the marketing mentality in 1995.

You can, however, reach them where they live — and more and more, that’s the information superhighway. At presstime, Reebok International Ltd. was planning an early ’95 merge onto the Internet with its own domain through a project spearheaded by former MTV veejay Adam Curry. “Not only are [younger consumers] more comfortable using the information highway, they expect to use it,” said Tom Carmody, senior vice president and general manager of Reebok’s North American operations.

One way to ensure future purchases of athletic shoes — while giving back to the community — is to keep consumers involved in sports from a young age. In April ’94 Nike Inc. kicked off its PLAY (Participate in the Lives of America’s Youth) program by beginning to resurface basketball courts in cities such as Minneapolis, Brooklyn and Atlanta. “With all the budget cuts that are happening in high school and junior high, and even elementary [schools], there are fewer opportunities to participate in organized sports,” explained Tom Feuer, public relations manager for Nike. “There’s good value in building all of these activities back up, and it makes business sense,” he added.

In a joint program with Foot Locker, Fila USA has replaced 600 backboards in the public schools in the New York City area. “That has a message,” said Mark Westerman, associated director of advertising and communications for Fila. “Shoot hoops, not drugs.” The program, which was launched in September, will be rolled out to at least four other markets, including Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C.

Adidas, meanwhile, is involved with the Arthur Ashe Foundation on a program called Safe Passage, which helps recapture run-down tennis courts in city neighborhoods. In addition, during the World Cup games, Adidas built soccer fields in all the venue cities. “A billboard is up for a month and goes away,” explained John Fread, public relations director for Adidas. “By building a soccer field, you’ve left something much longer and many impressions later.”

Retailers are also pitching in. Fleet Feet, the Sacramento, Calif.-based triathlete specialty chain, is working more closely with companies such as Asics, Nike and Adidas on team sports programs targeted at the high school level, said president Tom Raynor. Some stores are fitting kids at school, and having them pick up their men’s plantar fasciitis shoes at the stores. And, the chain has expanded the number of summer camps for runners it conducts. “It’s cliched, but it is where our future generation of consumers comes from,” said Raynor. While Fleet Feet stores cater to many longtime runner baby boomers, Raynor sees a lot of opportunity to draw in young female athletes who have benefited from Title IX.

In fact, despite recent studies suggesting teenagers are not working out as often as they should, shoe companies are taking the needs of the young consumer very seriously.

“We believe they are still working out. We don’t see any significant dropoff in the fact they still want to be fit,” said Jackson. What Avia does see, though, is a variation on the club workout, with activities such as circuit training, step and slide taking the place of standard aerobics classes, and more outdoor workouts like turf training.

As a result, Avia has shifted away from the very traditional, white aerobic shoe toward more dramatic designs, and this fall is planning to introduce the Advanced Cantilever System into cross-training and off-road shoes, both directed to the 18-year-old customer.

Asics Tiger, meanwhile, has segmented its women’s business to target different age groups and markets. The sport-specific training category is aimed at women ages 12 to 24, with the emphasis on the 12- to 18-year-old female consumer.

“They’re the after-Xers to some extent,” said Linda Nielander, director of women’s fitness for the Fountain Valley, Calif.-based firm. “They grew up having athletics be a part of their life. Our goal as an industry is to have them keep on playing after they hit the junior high school level.”

To support the category, Asics works with athletes such as Tammy Liley, the captain of the U.S. National Volleyball Team, and Julie Croteau, the first woman to play NCAA baseball. They may not be household names, but “we aren’t signing athletes that aren’t reachable for women,” said Nielander. [We’re signing athletes] they can relate to and aspire to be.”

Meanwhile, Asics is trying to court a younger male customer as well, though “our running heritage does lend itself to an older consumer,” admitted Kraig Kobayashi, marketing manager of men’s cross-training at Asics. One attempt to skew younger is the fall ’95 introduction of the Gel Wasabi, the company’s first turf trainer. “It’s the most aggressive product designwise that we’ve ever put out,” said Kobayashi.

Manufacturers are also addressing the fact that many of today’s young consumers literally are not playing by the old rules. They are pushing the envelope of individualistic activities such as skateboarding and in-line skating, creating demands for new kinds of looks and features in footwear. For example, Adidas developed its Winterball line after watching kids play basketball on city streets using wastebaskets propped on telephone poles or sticks for hoops. The Winterball line offers soles designed for asphalt or cement surfaces that are thicker for more warmth in cold weather, explained Fread.

In addition, he warned, today’s younger, savvier customers are as demanding about value as they are about performance. “They know about sports injuries,” said Fread. “But they won’t spend $189 for a shoe anymore. You have to adjust that price point, and be able to communicate…that you’re not sacrificing the quality of the shoe by dropping the price point.” Key prices, he added, are in the $69 to $79 range.

In addition, newness has become even more important among younger consumers, who, like MTV, are always cutting to the next frame. “The shoes only last on the shelves five, six weeks,” said Converse’s Bell, “whereas before, they were on for six months.” Converse now staggers delivery of new styles into stores so that something new, whether a style or a color, appears at the start of each month.

Of course, some firms have taken a look at their core market and decided they do not need to introduce a shoe a minute. Said Bob Bogaty, director of business development for Etonic: “We’re not a Generation X type of shoe. We’re a baby boomer type of shoe, and that’s a strategy we’re going to go after.”

Three-quarters of New Balance’s sales are to consumers 25 years and older, said Paul Heffernan, vice president of marketing. So, while the company is trying to concentrate its price points more strongly in the $50-$70 range instead of at $70 and above, and improve its cosmetics, reaching out to younger consumers, “is not necessarily an ongoing conversation in the building,” said Heffernan. “If I go after $59 price points with a little more progressive cosmetics, I’m not solely doing that to whet the appetite of the 12- to 18-year-old kid. I’m being successful selling that to Nordstrom or to Larry’s, who don’t necessarily have that young customer.”

While catering to the youth market does have its share of quirks and pitfalls, some industry experts warn against getting too caught up in attempts to “define” the generation. “Right now, the ’90s have kind of revisited the ’60s,” said Reebok’s Carmody, pointing to the re-emergence of environmental concerns and the focus on outdoor and individualistic sports such as in-lining and biking. “These things tend to have a natural evolution.”

Retailers, too, are trying to locate a comfortable perspective on a youth market that lately has been tough to define.

At Koenig Sports, the Solon, Ohiobased sporting goods chain, that means depending on core brands like Nike and Reebok to light the way, and bringing in high-demand product from the third-tier brands such as Guess and Ellesse on a regional basis, explained footwear buyer Ken Kuhlman.

As a last resort, anyone still confused about marketing to the younger consumer can always seek counsel from Beavis and Butthead or the cast of “Melrose Place.”

The Rules

* Rule 1: The hard sell is a no sale.

* Rule 2: Giving back will get you noticed.

* Rule 3: Young American is on line and in-line.

* Rule 4: Make a statement worth lacing.

* Rule 5: Who are we kidding? There are no rules.

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