Allbirds is introducing the Wool Runner 2, the first update to the shoe that kicked off the company’s stratospheric rise in 2016. Since then, a 2021 IPO sent the company’s value soaring into the billions before it crashed back to earth after product missteps. Tim Brown, co-founder and chief innovation officer, explains the importance of the new shoe.
D2C Insider: The Wool Runner put Allbirds on the map. What are the risks with a new version?
Tim Brown: I started working on the first version in 2008, in Wellington, reading about the decline of the wool industry in New Zealand. There were hundreds of prototypes. Working with my co-founder, we had a design philosophy about simplicity. The question was, "If you were designing one shoe, what would it be?"
In that first week after the Wool Runner launched in 2016, Time called us the most comfortable shoe in the world, and it took off. We made updates. But those changes never felt like they graduated to the level of a version improvement. Seven years later, we’ve got a thousand people and are a global brand. This felt like the right moment to look at this iconic product and return to the idea that we could improve on comfort.
D2C Insider: How different is this version?
Brown: There’s more space in the toe box. We’ve adjusted the outsole and added more structure to improve fit and comfort. And because we’ve learned so much about materials in the last eight years, we reduced the carbon footprint of this shoe by 14%.
D2C Insider: Allbirds has had setbacks. Sales are off. People didn’t respond well to the running shoes or apparel you introduced. How much pressure does that put on you for the Wool Runner 2? Are you going back to basics?
Brown: It's not so much back to basics, but about returning to the things that made us great. In many ways, it's been this whirlwind beyond my wildest dreams. Along the way, we hit some speed bumps. We've made some things we've had to learn from, including apparel.
Part of the opportunity is to refocus on the things no one else can do. So the Wool Runner 2 is a physical expression of looking backward to look forward. We’ve also gone back to our original storytelling.
D2C Insider: Yes, the ads, from Special Group, are funny. One is a spoof on things that are uncomfortable. The other has you chasing sheep and trying to say “comfortableier.” Is that also a look backward?
Brown: We even shot that video on the same farm as the launch video. It belongs to family friends. My mom, who also was in the launch video, is in this one. And the ad shows, I hope, that while we take every detail of the shoe seriously, we never take ourselves too seriously. This is a simple idea around comfort and nature, delivered with humor.
D2C Insider: What’s your take on changing channels? You launched as a D2C brand, then opened stores, and now sell wholesale. How do you speak to those different audiences?
Brown: Certain pillars are the same. We're still in the early chapters of a shift back to natural material innovation. Comfort is still incredibly important. And then there’s this idea of classic iconic design in a category that tends to be a little superficial and transient. All three are as true today as they were when we started. And none of that changes by channel. You may watch a video when you buy from us online, while you wouldn’t in a wholesale channel. But we still connect with people using the same ideas.
D2C Insider: I’m not sure I agree. I bought a pair of Allbirds online because they looked comfortable. But it wasn’t until I shopped in one of your stores that I understood how sustainable they were. It was a very different experience.
Brown: Yes. We've worked out how to tell that sustainability story in a direct context. We've been doing that for a long time. Wholesale is new to us, but the fundamental truth stays the same. We are just at the beginning of this.
It takes a long time to build a brand. Very few people know who we are. And no one truly understands what sustainability means, exactly. So there's a bunch of opportunity there. That gives me a lot of energy for where we are. Hopefully, you can go into a store, buy online or through wholesale channels, and wherever you meet us, you get that consistent presentation and understand why we're different.
D2C Insider: What’s next? In your ideal world, how many shoes are in your portfolio?
Brown: The more important question is being clear about what you stand for. That’s what Wool Runner represents. People are frustrated by the lack of progress around natural materials; this is an opportunity to fine-tune that expression. There will be new stuff, but this moment is about simplifying what we stand for and executing that well. It's less about thinking about all the other things you could make and more about what you execute with extraordinary quality.