The Brand Specialist was asked by Brazil’s most respected business magazine Exame to explain how Skechers and their toning shoes have become such a huge sales success.

Market Situation

“Although Nike has held on to its top spot in the U.S. woman’s athletic footwear market, its share slipped 7.2 percentage points, to 31 percent, or $412 million, in the first quarter from a year ago, according to researcher SportsOneSource. Reebok share more than doubled, to 6.7 percent, or $90.3 million, and Skechers tripled to 17 percent, or $225.7 million.” reports Businessweek.

The Interview

Is it possible to explain the phenomenon of toning shoes? Is this a relatively new phenomenon? Why are they such a hit?

Toning shoes are such a massive hit because they score high in both the functional and social aspects of the human decision making process; people’s perception of what the product does for them and their perception of what the product says about them. As a functional product the toning shoe promises weight-loss, firmer legs and a tighter bottom – all for as little as the $100,- (for a pair). Plus consumers don’t have to take any time out of their daily schedule to do the “exercise”. No fitness club can compete with the low price or convenience – it’s easy to see the appeal. It’s very difficult for consumers to communicate to their peers that they are fit, healthy and exercise conscious without, well, bragging. They can drop ‘clues’ by dressing like they’re going to the gym and even hold a bottle of ‘pure’ water in a vain attempt to ‘get the message across’. But they might just end up looking like someone who couldn’t be bothered to put on some proper clothes. As a social product the toning shoe clearly communicates a “health conscious lifestyle” due to its distinctive and unmistakable shape – everyone will know you’re “toning” right this moment. It’s a bit like walking around with a part of the gym permanently attached to your feet – unmissable. skechers

These products are still considered controversial for many physicians and still they are hits. Is it related to the fact that Skechers is such a strong brand?

$100,- for a pair of shoes is not a lot to pay when compared to a gym membership with a minimum 6 months contract. Consumers don’t have to set aside any of their precious time like they would have to do for the gym. A lot of experts say they don’t work, but for most people an investment of no time and only $100,- is well worth the risk for something that just ‘might’ work. If experts told woman anti-wrinkle creams didn’t work, women wouldn’t stop using them, as it’s better to be safe than sorry.

In 2010, Skechers became the number 2 footwear brand in the US. Do you think it is possible to analyse the main points that made this success possible?

Sketchers should be very thankful to Nike who allowed them to have first mover advantage. This meant they could almost re-brand Skechers from meaning just “Shoes” to mean “Shape-Ups toning shoes”, and in doing so they where able to become synonymous with the toning shoe category itself. So when consumers think ‘toning shoes’ they think ‘Sketchers’, it’s a step further than being top of mind – it’s being the category. Branding is all about creating meaning, it’s what consumers think of when they hear a brand name or see a brand logo. And in this case, Nike and Reebok alike can’t be synonymous with toning shoes as they both offer so much more then just shoes. Their brands have become synonymous with inspiration, empowerment and self-determination, which are all transferable across their individually branded product lines. Sketchers didn’t have this “restriction”, and has been able to become synonymous with the product category itself; toning shoes. It’s a great place to be when people crave the category, but what should worry Sketchers is what will happen when people loose their cravings. Imagine after a few months when all the hype and excitement has worn off and people haven’t lost any weight, or dropping a jeans size. Toning shoes are no longer “new” and can’t be seen as the “latest” thing to have. The Kardashians popularity has dwindled, as they might lack staying power in the fast changing reality TV world. It’s risky to get endorsements from someone who’s here today, but might not be tomorrow. If consumers loose interest in toning shoe category, its fall might just take the (toning shoe synonymous) Sketchers brand down with it. If Sketchers brand doesn’t stand for something that transcends the product category – and the category fails – the Sketchers brand is as good as dead. The DVD killed off all video synonymous brands whilst technology synonymous brands just changed their offerings from video to DVD – offering the best technology whatever the product.

Last year, Skechers did a very simple marketing spot during the Super Bowl, differently of what most companies do, and they noticed that men actually started buying the shoes. On the other hand, they spent 103 million in measured media. How important is marketing in Skechers strategy?

Sketchers incredible growth and market share can also be put down to some clever marketing efforts. Firstly Sketchers’ product name ‘Shape-Ups’ has an advantage over Reebok’s ‘Easy-Tones’ as it suggests the user will be “Shapely” with everything moving “Up”. ‘Easy-Tones’ suggests the user is a bit lazy, as they would need an “Easy” way to “Tone”. Secondly, Kim Kardashian’s endorsement will have Shape-Ups flying of the shelves, as the Kardashians are admired, envied and identifiable to most young girls around. They are models, financially independent, successful businesswoman and yet have all the relationship problems most girls have. Thirdly, ‘Buy-Buy Trainers’ ‘Hello Shape-Ups’ reaffirms what most people already knows; that trainers are a bit 80’s. What is cool on the other hand are sneakers, the only problem for sneakers is that they are very difficult to distinguish from trainers. Shape-ups on the other hand have a very distinct shape – which can be easily recognised. Consumer’s sub-conscious decision making process might go something like: “Best to get a pair of Shape-ups so no-one will think I’m wearing trainers – even though I’m wearing a pair of the latest $150,- über cool Nike sneakers”.

Skechers has different products aimed at different market segments. Does it amplify the chances of success?

A market-focused product strategy will always have a greater chance of succeeding, as it’s tailored to people’s generic needs found within specific segments. It means removing doubt from their decision-making process and amplifying the chances of success.

Important footwear brands like Reebok are entering the toning shoes market. What does this competition means for Skechers?

The fact that a brand like Reebok have entered the toning shoe market is what you could call a category endorsement. Their entry legitimates Skechers claims of toning, health and fitness and puts doubters at ease. Toning shoes aren’t a hit just because of Skechers alone; it’s the marketing efforts of Reebok and Skechers combined that have grown the category – at the expense of Nike. They have both benefited from each others efforts in convincing the consumer know they should buy toning shoes instead of ‘normal’ trainers.

Have Nike missed the boat?

It wouldn’t be very trendsetting of Nike to follow Skechers and Reebok. It might make financial sense in the short-term, but it could have a negative effect on their brand in the long term. A leader should never follow even if they’ve made a wrong turn – if they do, then they’re no longer the leader.

My Recommendation

Nike should start to offer toning shoes but don’t advertise the fact. Just tell customers; “Yes, they are over there” when they ask in store. It means taking out all the hype and “pretend” they have been selling them for some time (and not missed anything). This way they won’t be seen as “followers” or not being “with it”. And hopefully they would be able to claw back some of their lost share in the U.S. woman’s athletic footwear market without loosing face.