Commentary

New Balance's Minimus Joins The 'Barefoot' Race

Marketers' blog posts don't usually draw more than a handful of comments, unless it's about some wildly unpopular notion that incites the dormant irateness in consumers' souls. As of 5ish this morning, for example, Jessie Becker has the distinction of having received a whopping 12,591 responses to his explanation of why it's a good idea for Netflix to raise its subscription prices by 60%. Let's just say that customers' reviews of this horror move hover in the one-half-star range.

Most marketers would be blown away, I think, if they engaged more than a couple hundred of their consumers in a mostly positive discussion of a new product. New Balance has done just that with an "interview" with Katherine Petrecca, who is managing its NB Minimus collection. It has also garnered more than 300 Facebook likes in the year or so it has been up. And she doesn't say a heck of a lot that isn't straight-out propaganda.

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"We view these shoes very much as tools that encourage better running form, and help strengthen the legs and feet," she offers. "As important, a great minimal shoe should deliver increased ground feel and control, which is what makes them so much fun to use."

Petrecca also explains that the line is really "just an extension" of some shoes that have had a following for some time in "hardcore running community." Well, as Andrew Adam Newman reports in the New York Times this morning, the shoe is ready for the pack in the back, replete with a new 30-second spot (out of Arnold, Boston) that features a raccoon, hot coals and a guy who discovers that the shoes are "like barefoot, only better."

A second spot features a runner walking into a convenience store with one foot naked and the other wearing a Minimus. Funny stuff -- and that comes from someone who has run barefoot on gravel but has yet to muster the guts to enter a retail establishment without at least a pair of floppies on his feet. The spots break today, Newman informs us, on ESPN, Comedy Central and the Discovery Channel.

Newman includes the cautionary disclaimer that anyone who writes about barefoot running feels compelled to include -- this one is from Runner's World editor-in-chief David Willey.

"Willey advocates introducing barefoot or minimal shoes into running routines only gradually (as he has himself), using them at first to run as little as 50 yards, because runners need to gradually adapt to taking shorter strides, landing on the forefoot, and strengthening the foot and leg muscles required to do so."

That just about sums it up: If you decide to do it, do it slowly.

Petrecca herself has a great quip: "If I thought barefoot running was the be-all and end-all, I would quit and make foot soap," she says. (Foot soap is not a bad idea, folks -- just make sure it's "green.")

Market research firm SportsOneSource says sales for minimalist running shoes are up more than 280% over the same period last year, Kari Lipschultz reports in Adweek. "Regular running shoes have also shown growth since last year, but this new market of barely-there kicks is clearly becoming a force," she writes.

I have written in the past about one of the trailblazing brands in the genre, Vibram Five Fingers, as well as a mini-trend toward more "natural" forms of training. The website Minimalist Running Shoes, features reviews on a few dozen brands and styles. A shoe that caught my fancy there months ago isn't even in production yet.

The Stem brand of minimalist shoes, which is scheduled to roll out in the fall, carries the tagline "Ancestral Footwear." The website is already filled with useful information and a couple of weeks ago it established a presence on Facebook. Stem also provides everything you need to know of a pseudo-scientific bent to deliver a lecture at the health club the next time someone innocently asks, "But what do you do for support?"

Having delivered this diatribe, I have a new appreciation for what high school chemistry teachers go through on a daily basis. One skeptic, who clearly has been silently aghast that I play racquetball in Vibram Five Fingers, recently handed me a story in the July 11 edition of Navy Times that carries the headline, "Navy on verge of nixing 'barefoot' sport shoes" based on a "concern for injuries." The Army earlier banned Five Fingers "when conducting training in military formation."

Back from where I come from, which is the late Sixties, actions like these only tend to build resolve in the true believers. In fact, the emerging barefoot/minimalist running fraternity is truly the sort of "tribe" that Seth Godin has been talking about for a few years now, although I'm not sure he envisioned that it would actually look so authentically "ancestral."  

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