Why Merrill is expanding beyond hiking boots with a new line of running

Merrell has spent the past 40 years building its reputation as a footwear brand with durable, reliable hiking boots. But as outdoor activity and corresponding gear continue to rise exponentially, Merrell is making a renewed push into running shoes and lightweight shoes.

This month Merrell announced the release of two new running shoes from its Merrell Test Lab, a product incubator focused on improving technical construction. A corresponding marketing campaign, “Same is Boring,” is geared towards runners who perform great outdoors, with half of their advertising dollars going to connected TV.

The launch showcases the way niche apparel brands are expanding to keep pace with changing consumer habits, as well as where and how to shop. Outdoor brands have already seen a spike in sales thanks to the rise of “gorpcore” fashion, as well as the popularity of outdoor sports after the pandemic-induced lockdowns.

Lindsey Lindemulder, Merrill’s director of brand marketing, said the company wants to respond to the changing market. She said the new shoes could also provide opportunity for new retail partners.

“Not only are traditional outdoor retailers shifting as the consumer changes, but I think consumers are looking to buy different types of products in different types of distribution than they were before,” she said. “And that definitely opens up new opportunities for us.”

Merrell is part of Wolverine Worldwide along with Saucony, Sweaty Betty, and other sports brands. Merrell is expected to see high teen growth this year due to a new product launch, even as first-quarter revenue fell 2% to $148 million, President and CEO Brenden Hoffman said on the latest earnings call. The previous year, Merrell had a record 22% revenue growth, according to Wolverine’s annual report.

It makes sense for a brand like Merrill, known for hiking, to double down on trail running given the popularity of outdoor sports and activities, said Jessica Rodriguez, analyst with Jen Haley & Associates.

“I think a lot of third-party brands have taken an idea and really modernized the product that they’re developing and offering to consumers,” Rodriguez said. “You see brands like Nike expand those outer lines, and then you see those that have always been outer lines develop their lineup and capitalize on consumer interest in that category.”

Experimental lab experiments

With this new campaign, Merrell is launching two new products: MTL Long Sky 2 and MTL MQM. It’s the result of research and development in the Merrill Test Lab, which Vice President of Product Development Shaun Bonsack said includes back-and-forth conversations with professional athletes to come up with the right fit and build.

Bonsack said the track research being conducted at Merrill dates back to 2017, while efforts to formalize the incubator began in late 2020. This included assembling a major athletic team, with 18 elite runners from around the world tasked with helping test products.

“Athletes really want something that works well in changing conditions. And nature is always changing. So we can look at some of these things in the lab, but it really isn’t, and it doesn’t give us the answer when it comes to the field,” Bonsack said.

The lab focuses on creating products with a much lighter construction compared to hiking boots. As such, products often end up simpler than the initial release based on athlete input. One example was coming up with a material that dries 30% faster than previous shoes, allowing outdoor runners to run in a variety of weather conditions.

In addition to athletes testing products, Merrell works with a third-party field laboratory in Utah to test products on various terrains. The process is not immune to failure: shoes often come back broken or torn.

“Expectations of how to solve something, don’t work with these athletes in these environments,” Bonsack said. “So it’s really fun to say, ‘You have to have this and this,’ and the athlete comes back and says, ‘It’s not like that at all. Here’s why that didn’t work.”

These lessons continue into the rest of Merrill’s performances. Bonsack said the track-running test teaches the team more about traction, cushioning and general build.

“All of this is really starting to get underappreciated in a lot of the 2023 launches that we’re going to be doing,” Bonsack said.

new marketing push

In addition to the new products, the accompanying “Same is Boring” campaign focuses on the running track as an exciting alternative to treadmills and sidewalks. A 60-second spot showcases runners navigating sand, rivers, rocks and even outpacing stags.

More than 50% of the campaign’s ad dollars will be shown on connected TV, said Jane Smith, Merrell’s director of digital marketing, compared to just 5% last year. She said social media ads are also doing well.

“We’re seeing a huge rise in ‘in-app’ social shopping, which is also an interesting and more recent area of ​​focus for us,” she said.

Marketing Director Lindmulder said the main demographic targets include people interested in health, employment and performance. But what’s somewhat unexpected is people interested in tech, with channels like Popular Mechanics.

“There are some really intentional things that we’ve done here with design and technology in the way we’ve made shoes. And we’ve found that this is an area that resonates with consumers as well.” “They have that kind of thinking they’re always learning and they’re always trying to improve themselves.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: