Why Merrell is expanding beyond hiking shoes with a new trail running line

Merrell has spent the past 40 years building its reputation as a footwear brand with rugged, dependable hiking shoes. But as the popularity of outdoor activities and corresponding gear continues to skyrocket, Merrell is renewing its momentum in trail running and lightweight footwear.

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

The launch shows how niche apparel brands are growing to keep up with changing consumer habits, as well as where and how people shop. Outdoor brands have already seen a surge in sales thanks to the emergence of ‘gorpcore’ fashion, as well as the popularity of outdoor sports following pandemic-induced shutdowns.

Merrell brand marketing director Lindsey Lindemulder said the company wanted to respond to the changing market. The new shoes could also provide the opportunity for new retail partners, she said.

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

Merrell is part of Wolverine Worldwide alongside Saucony, Sweaty Betty and other sports brands. President and CEO Brenden Hoffman said during the last call for results that Merrell is expected to see teenage growth this year due to new product launches, even though first-quarter revenue fell 2% to $148 million. The previous year, Merrell had achieved record revenue growth of 22%, according to Wolverine’s annual report.

Jane Hali & Associates analyst Jessica Rodriguez said it made sense for a brand like Merrell, known for hiking, to double down on trail running given the popularity of the sport and outdoor activity. air.

“I think a lot of outdoor brands have taken a cue and really modernized the product that they develop and bring to consumers,” Rodriguez said. “You see brands like Nike expanding those outdoor lines, and then you see the ones that have always been outdoor lines evolving their assortment and taking advantage of consumer interest in that category.”

Laboratory tests

With this new campaign, Merrell is launching two new products: the MTL Long Sky 2 and the MTL MQM. They are the result of research and development at the Merrell Test Lab, which VP of Product Development Shaun Bohnsack says involves back and forth conversations with professional athletes to find the right fit and construction.

Trail running research at Merrell dates back to 2017, Bohnsack said, while efforts to formalize the incubator began in late 2020. This included building a large team of athletes, with 18 elite runners from the around the world who are responsible for helping to test the products.

“Athletes really want something that works well in changing conditions. And nature always changes. So we can look at some of these things in a lab, but that really doesn’t give us the answer as far as the field goes,” Bohnsack said.

The lab focuses on creating products with a much lighter construction compared to hiking shoes. As such, products often end up being more streamlined than the initial version based on athlete feedback. One example was offering materials that dry 30% faster than previous shoes, allowing outdoor runners to keep going in a variety of weather conditions.

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

“Expectations of how to fix something, they don’t work for these athletes in these environments,” Bohnsack said. “So it’s really fun to say, ‘There has to be this and that,’ and the athlete comes back and says, ‘That’s absolutely not the case. Here’s why it doesn’t work.

These lessons carry over into the rest of Merrell’s offerings. Bohnsack said trail running testing teaches the team more about traction, cushioning and overall construction.

“It’s all really starting to play into a lot of our 2023 launches that we’re going to do,” Bohnsack said.

A new marketing impetus

In addition to new products, the associated “Same is Boring” campaign focuses on trail running as an attractive alternative to treadmills and sidewalks. A 60-second spot features riders navigating sand, rivers, rocks and even overtaking a moose.

Jane Smith, senior director of digital marketing at Merrell, said more than 50% of campaign advertising dollars went to connected TV, up from just 5% last year. Social media ads also work well, she said.

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

Chief Marketing Officer Lindemulder said key target demographics include those interested in health, running and performance. But a bit more unexpected are people interested in technology, through channels like Popular Mechanics.

“There are some really, really intentional things that we’ve done here with design and technology in the way we’ve built the shoes and we’ve found that’s an area that resonates with our consumers as well,” she said, “They have this mindset of always learning and always trying to improve.”