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Minimalist Running: Born from the Voice of the Customer, or Marketing Hype?

Minimalist running hit the mainstream in 2009, when Christopher McDougall published his New York Times best-seller, “Born to Run.”  The book profiles the eccentric Micah True, as he arranges a running competition between American ultrarunners and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, who run for hours on their huaraches made of tire tread.  The book suggests that humans evolved to run long distances naturally, with little to nothing on our feet.   It claims that the cushioning in modern running shoes causes more injuries than it prevents.

Vibram FiveFingers, synonymous with barefoot running
Vibram FiveFingers, synonymous with barefoot running, photo courtesy of Vibram

Sales of minimalist running shoes took off, along with the book’s popularity.  In 2010, minimalist running shoes made up 30% of the market, according to Outside Magazine, with new market entrant Vibram FiveFingers capturing 2%.

Today, although the share of minimalist shoes is down to 15%, all of the major athletic shoe brands promote minimalist models, such as the Nike Free, Merrell Trail Glove, and Saucony Kinvara.   Is the voice of the customer driving this trend, or just hype?  Let’s analyze the question with a marketer’s tool set.

Minimalist Running:  the Value Proposition

The value proposition of minimalist running is that “less is more.”  Minimalist running advocates for the least amount of shoe that runners can safely wear.   With less padding, a runner’s foot feels the ground more effectively and sends feedback to the brain to modify the stride.   Over time, runners change from striking the ground first with their heel to a more natural strike, with the mid-sole or fore-foot, which should strengthen the foot and prevent injuries.

The Voice of the Customer – from WAY before 2009

Minimalist running was not invented in 2009.   Men and women were running barefoot, and running FAST, long before then.

In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila ran barefoot to win the marathon in 2:15:17.   In Tokyo in 1964, he won again, becoming the first two-time marathon winner, finishing in 2:12:11.

Famous for her collision with Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympic 3000 meters, South African Zola Budd set the world record for the 5000 meters, running barefoot, in both 1984 and 1985.

A Competing Voice Calls for “Clown Shoes”

In 2010, the padding pendulum began to swing the other way.  That year, elite ultrarunner Karl Meltzer tried a pair of massively cushioned Hoka One Ones,  known affectionately as “clown shoes” because of their huge sole.

Photo courtesy of Hoka One One
Photo courtesy of Hoka One One

More forgiving and stable, the brand has quickly gained a devoted following of top competitive ultrarunners, claiming 30 trail running wins in races over the past 18 months.

A Closer Look at Buyer Pains

I’m not talking about leg pain, and whether minimalist shoes or maximalist shoes are better for injury prevention.  The science is inconclusive.  I’m talking about a deeper look into the voice of the customer and what drives the purchasing decision.

According to the Buyer Persona Institute, key aspects of a buyer persona include priority initiatives, success factors, and decision criteria.   In determining preference for more or less cushioning, wouldn’t these factors be the same for the majority of serious trail runners?  Of course!   Run fast over long distances.  Avoid injury.  Appearance doesn’t matter.  Clown shoe or weird looking foot-glove – if you get the results, then wear them with pride.

Then how to explain what seems like two different voices of the customer?

The answer seems obvious.   Serious trail runners are only a small portion of the market!   Some buyers (gasp!) are not even runners!  The Nike Free, the minimalist category leader with a 70% share, is most often purchased by non-runners.  SportsOneSource even separates it from other minimalist shoe sales when reporting on category market shares.   The voice of the customer making a fashion purchase is certainly different from that of the ultrarunner.

Minimalism:  More Than Marketing Hype, a Lasting Impact

It appears that the era of barefoot running is indeed over.  Minimalist shoes declined to 11% of market share, as reported by Runners World in spring of 2013.  And the share falls to 4% when the Nike Free is removed.   But the decline doesn’t mean that it was only marketing hype from “Born to Run” that drove the market.

The minimalist running trend has made lasting impact on larger running shoe categories, like traditional trainers.  Companies are incorporating new materials and processes to drive down weight and ramp angle throughout their product lines.   Like the impact of alternative fuel vehicles on the broader automobile market, these significant innovations will continue to drive the market in the future.  Although you may see more Hoka One Ones than Vibram FiveFingers in your next ultra, the minimalist running trend has left its mark.

How about you?  Have you used minimalist running shoes?  How about Hoka One Ones?  What was your purchasing criteria?

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