When it comes to running, one of the things the new year means is running brands unveiling their new teams of athletes for the competitive seasons on the horizon.
Most pro runner endorsement contracts end on Dec. 31, which means there’s usually a mad scramble among athletes and sports marketing officials at shoe companies this time of the year. But it’s more than just signing fast runners with good times and race results. Connecting with athletes who have the ability to share their experiences via social media and with the company’s product team, as well as having a personality and character traits that can best represent the brand, are also important.
Hoka One One, a brand born in the world of trail running and ultrarunning, has continued to push the boundaries with the help from its elite athletes in those sports, as well as other running-related disciplines. On Jan 3, it will officially announce the launch of its new EVO Time to Fly elite team—an international squad that includes a cross-section of world-class trail and road runners, track athletes and triathletes.
The star-studded team that will serve as global brand athletes includes Ludovic Pommeret (France), the 2016 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc champion; Magdalena Boulet (U.S.), a 2008 U.S. Olympic marathoner and champion ultrarunner; Leo Manzano (U.S.), the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500-meter run; Charlotte Morel (France), a national champion triathlete; Sage Canaday (U.S.), a two-time Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier and champion ultrarunner; Heather Jackson (U.S.), a champion triathlete and third-place finisher at the 2016 Ironman World Championships; and Jim Walmsley (U.S.), an ultrarunner who set several records in 2016, including the JFK 50-miler and the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim FKT. A few more athletes could be added to the team soon.
“The EVO Time to Fly team features some of the best international athletes in every discipline of running—road, trail and track,” said Mike McManus, Hoka One One Global Sports Marketing Manager, who will be managing the team. “We’ve carefully selected athletes that continually challenge the status quo and proudly represent our brand as ambassadors who inspire others.”
Hoka also announced the signing of nine top American trail runners to its domestic team of athletes. Those signees—Chris Vargo, Alicia Vargo (formerly Shay), Tim Tollefson, Megan Roche, David Roche, Cole Watson, Jared Hazen, Patrick Reagan and Sabrina Little—have all made their mark at prominent trail and road races from 5K to 100 miles over the past several years. They join the already rich roster of athletes the includes 2016 record-setters Mike Wardian (new Marathon Majors record), Karl Meltzer (new Appalachian Trail record) and Pete Kostelnick (new trans-U.S. record), just to name a few.
While the brand will help develop footwear and other products for those athletes, the notion of creating elite-level gear just for a select few is too narrow of a concept, said McManus, who joined Hoka last year after more than 20 years at adidas. The bigger goal is to utilize the input and experiences of those athletes to continue to innovate and build better shoes for all runners, he added.
While many companies talk about using athlete input, not too many have really taken that input and used it constructively to innovate or adapt products. (Ultimate Direction, New Balance, Oiselle, Salomon, Nike and Altra are a few of the others that have shown results from athlete-led innovation.)
“One of the really cool things that has happened internally is the interaction our athletes have had with our product team and their ability to share the unique disciplines they come from,” McManus said. “In some cases, there is huge crossover but in other cases the athletes that are very, very different and unique, and yet both are important to us as a brand. The insights they’re able to give our product team will help us maximize our product from an innovation standpoint, but it also helps influence the direction of our company.”
The hard-fought experiences of those athletes can provide authentic input regarding comfort, performance and durability over a relatively short period of time during a race and from their history of competition. McManus said even though some of the athletes race as short as 4 minutes and some race more than 20 hours in different disciplines, there is some interesting overlap and synergy. For example, Jackson is an Ironman triathlete who typically runs in her Hokas after spending 5 hours or more swimming and cycling while Boulet is an ultrarunner who usually runs races that last from 5 to 20 hours.
McManus was quick to point out that it’s a two-way street. While Hoka gets valuable input and exposure, the brand encourages and helps the athletes achieve their goals, whether it’s winning races or going after new records or FKTs. And the athletes on the team help motivate each other, too.
“The interaction between a guy like track athlete Kyle Merber and ultrarunner Jim Walmsley was really something we didn’t expect,” he said. “There was a real interest and cool vibe between those guys, even though one is a fast miler on the track and the other is trying to do amazing things over extreme distances. It’s that kind of interaction and both similarities and differences that will help push us in our innovation.”