New Balance Takes College Campuses by Storm
When it comes to marketing, New Balance used to be low-key, eschewing splashy ads and million-dollar endorsers favored by big spenders Nike and adidas. Who needed all that, when the brand enjoyed a loyal following among serious runners who favored its comfortable shoes, width sizing and performance features?
But in 2008 the quiet company shook things up when it hit college campuses with a fun and sexy campaign that took the students by surprise—in their dorms, on campus sidewalks, in locker rooms, in bars, on the ground, online and pretty much everywhere.
New Balance rebranded the company and developed a fully integrated marketing platform that spanned every possible channel. Most cutting-edge was the experiential flight, by Burlington, VT-based Fuse, a one-day invasion of 33 college campuses in 11 markets, a live one-day branded assault that culminated almost a month of pre-event buzz. All elements centered around the tagline “LOVE/hate. This is the new balance.”
This is the New Balance, indeed. Long recognized as a leading player (after Nike and adidas) in the competitive athletic footwear category, New Balance has enjoyed steady growth since Chairman Jim Davis acquired it in the 1970s. By 2007, global sales had reached a respectable $1.63 billion, up from $1.55 billion the previous year. Robert De Martini, who laced up his New Balance CEO shoes in April 2007, is committed to nearly doubling that figure to $3 billion by 2012. His strategy entails product innovation and an increased emphasis on running. De Martini has tripled New Balance’s marketing budget and is looking to create an emotional bond with consumers, especially the desirable 18- to 29-year-old demo.
“Runners, whether they are a real dedicated runner, a fitness runner or a competitive athlete, have a love/hate relationship with running,” says Kevin Tripp, Senior Manager of Channel and Brand Marketing at New Balance. “There are parts of it that they love and parts that they really hate. We saw an opportunity to bring the campaign alive in a meaningful way to college students as we reached out to a younger consumer. We were able to take this love/hate relationship with running and be very playful and flirtatious, and that really captured the imaginations of the students.”
After all, what college kid doesn’t love to flirt, whether the message has to do with running shoes or not? Three to four weeks before the one-day campus invasion, New Balance piqued the students’ interest with cheeky and somewhat mysterious personal ads in the campus newspaper. One ad read, for example, “I WILL TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY. Heart pounding adrenaline and the open road get me going. I’m looking for a man who can keep up yet set his own pace. I may move fast but you won’t regret me in the morning. Interested?”
“Every week, it would be like walking into a candy store with all the great copy the team was coming up with,” Tripp says. “We wanted to have intrigue and make it seem like it was a personal ad literally from a person.”
Ads drove readers to an 800-number or an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, where they could enter a sweepstakes to win 100 pairs of New Balance shoes. But again, these were not your typical marketing messages. When people called the 800-number, a recorded voice enticed them with, “I don’t usually do this, but I’m glad I did. A little bit more about me. I’m as fast as you want, but I’m not easy. How about 100 pairs of New Balance kicks? That should spice things up a bit. Come on, just hit up runningheartsyou.com for a chance to win 100 pairs of New Balance sneaks for you and anyone else you love.”
After generating intrigue and interest in this mysterious “person,” New Balance blanketed campuses with an overnight “dorm storm.” Students woke up on April 3 to New Balance’s flirtatious love/hate messaging everywhere they turned. Brand ambassadors at each school pulled all-nighters placing door hangers on dorm-room doors, hanging posters and stickers, stenciling messages on sidewalks, attaching magnets and branded socks to gym lockers and distributing coasters to local bars.
Messages on the collateral read: “It only hurts at first. Promise.” Or, “You won’t regret me in the morning.” Pizza boxes stated, “Enjoy this tonight. You’ll want me even more tomorrow.” The door hangers admonished, “Do not disturb. I just got back from a date with running and I’m all hot and sweaty.” The copy subtly referenced running and the love/hate theme and directed students to the website, runningheartsyou.com.
Fuse executed the program mainly at larger colleges and universities, such as Columbia University, University of Southern California, San Francisco State, University of Miami and University of Texas, with communities of students living on or near campus. The agency dedicated six staffers to recruit the brand ambassadors, outgoing students who were active in clubs and had access to dorms and other housing who would also be willing to work hard and take the job seriously. A team of four ambassadors at each school, led by a manager who received marketing materials and product in stages, was sworn to secrecy. Fuse worked with a pizza box distributor to get New Balance-branded pizza boxes into local pizzerias.
It also kept college administrators out of the picture. “We took a ‘beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission’ approach,” says Clarke Colon, Event Group Director at Fuse. “We expected more push-back than we got from college administrators and had a contingency plan in place.” The only problem occurred at one school when high winds blew posters around one area, but that was alleviated with a donation to cover clean-up costs.
The third component of the program was a retail tie-in with Foot Locker, a major national player in the marketplace with locations in close proximity to the campuses. A couple of days following the dorm storm, print ads in college newspapers continued the flirtatious theme: “Now that you’ve gotten to know me better, why don’t you slip into something a little more comfortable, like a pair of New Balance.” A gift with purchase drove them to the local store.
The students apparently bought in. “The whole program was really set up to be so much fun and full of intrigue that people enjoyed the journey and weren’t disappointed or upset when they found out it was essentially a marketing campaign,” Tripp says. He credits the cheeky theme for much of that success, especially with the personal ads and 800-number script. “If we had directed them to a number that says thank you for calling New Balance, I think people would have been upset. But we made the journey so fun and flirtatious that when they found out it was a New Balance program they weren’t that upset.”
Fuse partner Brett Smith attributed the success to strong collaboration and planning. “All the necessary elements of an event marketing campaign came together, like a perfect storm,” he says. “We had a relevant core message that resonated with college students and were able to bring that to life through the tactics in the program: seeding through personal ads, effective copy, authentic and relevant student-focused language in the marketing materials as well as the premiums, the pizza boxes, sidewalk stencils, good retail support and a student-relevant offer. It all just came together.”
New Balance seemed comfortable shaking off its old-fashioned image. “We had a lot of discussion back and forth about the sex theme,” Colon says. “New Balance wasn’t really this type of brand and some of the elements were out of its comfort zone. But they trusted our judgment; and they toned some of it.”
Thousands of students engaged the brand, many on site and then online. Incremental thousands of others were brought back to the brand’s website by friends touched by the experiential elements—to the tune of almost 4,000 runners a week even seven weeks after the program ended. More than 80,000 signed up for the online sweeps (the winner donated the 100 pairs of shoes to charity, even though she could have kept them all for herself). And partner Foot Locker saw a 31 percent lift at retail. New Balance tapped into the students’ passion for running and dating and mostly, just having a good time.