How New Balance became king of the rebrand

The athletic co's Patrick Cassidy, global director of consumer marketing, on building off the Kawhi Leonard marketing fun.

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Kawhi Leonard waved, smiled and even gave fans that infamous laugh during the NBA Championship victory parade Monday in downtown Toronto, all whilst donning a New Balance T-shirt with his latest slogan on it: “Board Man Gets Paid.”

The Boston-based athletic company also undoubtedly has gotten paid during the Toronto Raptors historic journey to winning its first-ever championship via its sponsorship deal with the stoic star. While Patrick Cassidy, global director of consumer marketing at New Balance, would not reveal numbers, it’s clear the brand (perhaps previously most known for its “ugly dad shoes”) is doing what many marketers try, but few achieve – reviving the image of a moribund brand.

“People who didn’t have a conception of us, we’re building one now,” said Cassidy last week over the phone from his Boston office. “And people who had a preconceived notion of us that we’re just a weird shoe for dads, [now know we] can also be cool.”

The brand would not reveal which agencies it’s currently working with, but here in Canada Apex PR has been busy handling public relations in “We The North” country. While Cassidy led most of New Balance Basketball’s marketing work out of the company’s Boston office with what it calls its 13-person “Global Game Changer Team,” it also works with regional “Game Changer” counterparts in the U.S., China and Canada. The New Balance Canada team in Mississauga, Ont., has six people total, three of which are dedicated to executing “Game Changer” plans, says the company. The marketing on both sides of the border, as well as globally, has focused on what New Balance dubs the “Game Changer consumer,” a.k.a. predominantly males, aged 14 to 24, who are “connected to sport and sport culture.”

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Crown_Post_PurplejpgDuring the NBA Finals run, New Balance milked its Leonard connection for all its worth to reach out to that young, male sports-obsessed consumer and scored several marketing slam dunks here in Canada. Everything from the buzzy billboards above the Toronto Eaton Centre to the “Fun Guy.” T-shirts that sold out in mere minutes online to handing out branded paper “King Of The North” crowns in downtown Toronto ahead of Game 2 helped solidify the brand as no longer for uncool dads (Gen X), but for the cool kids of those dads (Gen Z).

Aiming to become the MVP of marketing

While luring away the now two-time NBA Finals MVP from Nike last year after Leonard reportedly had a falling out with the company has undoubtedly taken the New Balance Basketball brand to new heights, its pivot from a dad shoe brand to a “top global athletic brand” has actually been in the works for years, says Cassidy.

“You can’t be a true global athletic brand without basketball,” he asserts. “The groundwork has been laid with, ‘Who do we want to be in basketball? How do we want to be different? What is our plan for sustainability and to carve our niche in this really, really tough environment?’”

This is actually the second time New Balance, which was founded in 1906 in Boston by an Irish immigrant as an arch-support company, has tried to gain a foothold in what the global director of consumer marketing calls a very lucrative, and thus “brutal,” category. For years, Nike has dominated the USD$1 billion performance basketball market, snagging 73.5% in 2017, according to a report from market research firm NPD. That’s thanks in large part to its endorsement deal with the NBA’s other self-proclaimed king, LeBron James.

In the 1980s New Balance was “very big” in basketball, but over the years it chose to primarily focus on its strong running-shoe roots. When it decided to go up against the big guys in the category (namely: Nike and Adidas) Cassidy knew New Balance couldn’t compete on budget, but it could compete by “being different.” That has meant celebrating Leonard’s quirky (read painfully shy) persona in ads (like the one above, which ranked no. 4 in a recent study of  ads starring Raps players) and hitting the funny bone, when other brands like Nike tend to pull more at the heartstrings in its mass advertising efforts.

“The sentiment to the ‘Fun Guy’ billboard is almost 100% positive online,” Cassidy says. “So how that’s impacting our brand is significant, right? [via] the halo effect of Kawhi, but New Balance Basketball, in general, our plan isn’t to sell a bazillion basketball shoes. We are seeing a halo effect in lifestyle, footwear and apparel.”

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This summer and beyond Cassidy and his team are already planning on how to turn a viral sensation into a sustainable brand shift in the more than 130 countries New Balance is in, mainly by doubling down on “stories co-authored by Kawhi.” Meaning the famously business-minded athlete has been, and will continue to take, a leading role in building his (and thus) New Balance’s image as the NBA Finals fever starts to fade.

But it also means more posts like a recent one on New Balance Canada’s Instagram page of a Cool Kid donning head-to-toe New Balance gear that is decidedly not ugly with the CN Tower majestically looming in the background. And the overall  brand in Canada has been building on the foundation it set before Raptors fever swept the country, from its global brand platform launch in early 2018 to the launch of the 997H this March with help from local Toronto artists

“There are so many brands that have tried to enter into this brutal [global basketball] category and there are so many that are no longer with us,” notes Cassidy. “So… how do you build for sustainability?”

Cassidy says the path to successfully building off the “Fun Guy/King Of The North/Board Man” hype for New Balance has, and will continue, to lie in “acting differently and continuing to surprise people.”

Not a surprise? Leonard will continue to be at the centre of New Balance’s marketing going forward  the actual details of that though are, er, a surprise. Stay tuned.