On The Move: How a rising running shoe brand has conquered the market
As Super Bowl LIV was about to start between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers in Miami last February, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared in a hype video to introduce the two teams. One of the first shots Fox showed was a close-up of his feet. The movie star was wearing a bright white pair of On Running’s Cloud X, a hybrid running and training shoe made by a small, Swiss brand with a cult following. It was a surprising move, given Johnson’s “Project Rock” partnership with sportswear giant Under Armour and the fact that he has no relationship with On.
David Allemann was not one of the nearly 1 billion people watching around the world at that moment, as it was almost midnight 5,000 miles away in Zurich. But when On’s co-founder woke up the next morning and saw the excited communications from his team on Slack, he knew his 10-year-old company had taken a major step forward. The resulting spike in website traffic nearly took down On’s servers. “It looked like a marketing play, but it wasn’t,” said Allemann. “It was pure coincidence, and good fortune.”
On’s success has continued straight through the coronavirus pandemic even as the company’s more established competitors have been reeling. Nike, for example, announced a Q2 sales decline of 38% year-over-year in late June. On, meanwhile, had its highest-ever sales month in June, though it would not offer specifics.
Part of that rise is due to its ability to capitalize on the overall boost in running worldwide, launching three new shoes as many gyms and fitness centers remained closed. In early May, On launched the Cloudnova, its first tech-infused streetwear sneaker, appealing to the mainstream market as opposed to just avid runners. In July, On dropped “The Roger,” a tennis-inspired lifestyle sneaker designed by On investor Roger Federer; it sold out upon its release.
Later that same month the company launched the Cloudboom, a road-racing shoe with a carbon-fiber plate that pairs with On-branded wireless sport earphones created in partnership with Denmark’s Bang & Olufsen. In a non-footwear move, the company earlier this month announced the On Athletics Club, an elite group of top NCAA athletes and middle-distance runners from five continents preparing for the Tokyo Olympics with decorated American long-distance runner Dathan Ritzenhein at a training facility in Boulder, Colo. And though it has not disclosed a date, On will soon open a retail store in Manhattan, to go along with its three other locations — two in Shanghai and one in Portland.
Prior to the pandemic, On was 2019’s fastest-growing running brand by percentage growth in sales both in the U.S. and worldwide for the fourth year in a row, with over 7 million people kicking about in its shoes. The company, founded in 2010 by Allemann, Olivier Bernhard and Caspar Coppetti, has seen over 100% growth every year since its inception, and its shoes are sold at over 6,000 retailers in 55 countries, including U.S. national chains Fleet Feet, JackRabbit, RoadRunner Sports and REI.
Fleet Feet Chief Marketing Officer Brent Hollowell said On’s success is due to its unique design. “We have over 2 million digital scans of feet of all different shapes and sizes that show why what one person considers comfortable may not work for another,” Hollowell said. “What’s beautiful about On’s technology and the way it flexes and supports is that it can cover a lot of different people with different feet.”
That technology was born when Bernhard, a duathlon world champion and six-time Ironman, began his quest to create a shoe that would provide the “perfect running sensation,” which to him meant a cushioned landing and a firm push-off. Runners have long had to choose between a cushioned, comfortable training shoe that isn’t very fast and a flatter, more agile shoe that allows for increased speed but also increases post-run soreness. Bernhard began experimenting with a Swiss engineer to create a sole that would provide a bit of slide, like a clay tennis court, to decrease impact with horizontal movement.
Early prototypes of what became On’s patented “CloudTec” technology were made with cut-up pieces of garden hose, placed horizontally across the sole of a shoe. Now, On’s highly adaptive, hollow rubber “cloud” elements are decidedly more elegant, but still feature the garden hose’s holes. They allow for cushioning horizontally for a soft landing, then lock up to form a solid foundation for a powerful takeoff.
“Our solution is engineered rather than material,” said Allemann. He likens On’s disruptive technology to the front suspension that changed cycling far more than material advancements from steel to aluminum to carbon, or the reverse camber that revolutionized skiing, providing the ability to more easily carve turns without catching an edge. Testers of those early prototypes would slip on the shoes, go for a jog, then report that they felt “a little bit lighter and more switched on.” Hence, the company’s name and light-switch logo.
On even has scientific data to back up that feeling. A 2011 study done by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology found heart rates were reduced by two beats per minute and lactic acid concentration was reduced by 5.4% in 40 well-trained runners who were running in On shoes, as compared with their previous favorite running shoe. “If you reinvest that lowered heart rate to go a little bit faster to push to your normal, higher heart rate, and extrapolate that advantage, that’s three or four minutes faster in a marathon,” Allemann explained.
On has also used some innovative marketing techniques that Hollowell feels have allowed them to “break through the clutter” and connect with the running community. Their footwear and clothing comes in muted colors, a welcome change in a sea of neon. Instead of “pub runs” that end at a bar, On has organized “Art Runs” through big-city neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Chicago with murals, sculptures or live art installations, ending with a gathering at a museum or a park, and it has hosted art runs at Art Basel in both Switzerland and Miami Beach. The On “Tug-O-Run,” which has taken place in San Francisco, Hamburg and Cologne, pits two large teams of runners against each other running in opposite directions around a 5K loop course. And the company has turned its “SquadRace” series into virtual events, with one in Los Angeles and four regions in Germany.
For On’s three founders, seeing their shoes on new feet is still a thrill. “It’s very gratifying,” said Allemann, who often crosses the street to introduce himself to passers-by wearing Ons. “We’re building an engaged community that is bringing their family, friends and running buddies to On, and seeing that community continue to grow is the ultimate goal.”
Lindsay Berra is a freelance journalist who was a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and a reporter at MLB.com.