I just returned from a trip to Manhattan with Adidas for the launch of their new Ultra Boost shoe, alongside olympic titans Yohan Blake and Wilson Kipsang – an epic experience! This is a meaty ‘follow-on’ post from my trip to the company’s German HQ last year, and contains a behind the scenes view of the launch, my thoughts on the shoes, as well as an interview with Eric Liedtke (pictured with me above), who sits on the Adidas group board and is delivering their all-important ‘5 year plan’ in just 2 months time. It also has some of Adidas’ VP of Design for ‘Running’, Ben Herath’s thoughts too. I hope it gives you a good feel for what the company are up to right now, what they just launched, and what you’re going to see from them over the coming year! Read MORE…
SECTION 1) THE LAUNCH
The Ultra Boost is the opening ‘left-jab’ of the Adidas fight-back salvo after a tough 2014, and is billed as a game-changing innovation. The press community descended upon the iconic ’23 Wall Street’, in the city’s old financial district, and entered into a gritty, concrete, disused bank space with a hulking vault in the corner; all of which had been kitted out with plenty of Adidas decals! I was joined by c. 150 journalists from around the world, all of whom were being looked after in Soho’s achingly trendy Mondrian Hotel (which you might remember I posted about in my ‘Matcha Green Tea’ post last year). The scale, budget and ambition of this event was unrivalled compared to anything I’d attended in the past; this was a true global product launch extravaganza, and came off super-slick!
We learned that the shoe itself has a webbed ‘upper’ which stretches in sympathy with your foot as you strike the ground, and the midsole’s 3000 energy capsules encourage super-efficent energy recycling, putting a supposed 20% springier spring in your step than the previous generation Boost. They had scientific colleagues and a suite of measuring apparatus to demonstrate the before/after readings, which were undeniably impressive. They even showed their product against competitor shoes, to demonstrate superior efficacy, such was their confidence. All carried out by a host of professional, top-tier athletes who added serious gravity and credibility to the event.
SECTION 2) MY THOUGHTS ON THE SHOE:
I wore them exclusively for 4 days for exploring, jogging and working out, and here are a collection of first thoughts:
– By way of performance, you get an intense and immediately palpable amount of cushion and spring. The ‘coefficient of restitution’ – a technical measure for the springiness and amount of energy recycled – must be super-high! The thought of all that energy return is confidence-inspiring in every stride you take.
– I like the design, the pared-back simplicity and elegance of the aesthetic. Given the sleek and minimal lines, blended with the subtle, broadly monochrome palate, they could be worn either with dark jeans during the day, or colourful leggings at the gym. They don’t look limited to exclusive running purposes, and there’s something satisfying about the blue badge plate.
– I felt that my heels were positioned slightly higher than the previous generation Boost, tilting my foot forward slightly, as if trying to encourage a toe-strike to my stride. This took a bit of time to get used to.
– There’s also plenty of expansionary space at the front of the shoe, which is great for spreading the toes if you want a solid, planted connection to the ground when you’re executing a squat etc.
– The ‘Primeknit’ mesh fabric was super-breathable, and you can actually feel that efficient aeration when you wear them.
– It broadly feels like a neutral shoe, and one that my feet very much savoured wearing.
SECTION 3) THE INTERVIEWS:
I’ve chosen to publish my 2 interviews as transcripts, unedited, as I think there’s so much to learn about how world-class fitness companies like Adidas operate from them. First up, I was super excited to interview Eric Liedtke, who talismanically led the introduction at the launch event, much as Steve Jobs might once have done at Apple. He’s the guy people think will be the next CEO of Adidas, and I was very keen to hear what he thought would be the big trends over the coming year, as well as to hear what his response to the competitor advances in the US would be. Read below for his thoughts…
FOT: What’s the Adidas look-and-feel, in your mind?
EL: From an aesthetics standpoint, I’ll leave that to the creative directors, but to me it’s important to stay true to who you are. We were founded by Adi Dassler back in the day, and he was relentless in his pursuit of making Athletes better, and we hold that tenet true to everything we do. To me, we’re the original sports brand, and we seek to be the best in the world. If you think about coming from sport, making athletes better, you have to keep those things very close to who you are and how you speak about yourself. At times, we’ve gotten too far afield from that, but we’re bringing that back in to make it more sport-based; it doesn’t mean we walk away from some of the great things we have at Paris Fashion Week, or what we have with Originals, with Rita Ora etc. The important thing is that those come from a certain place. The consumer must see a consistency. They buy what you stand for, and I think you have to stand for sport – we’re rallying around that. We’re also working on being more new, and getting faster. Sport, New and Speed are the 3 words we’re working around – I could go on and on about that, but why don’t you give me until March when we release the SDP [Strategic Direction Plan].
What are the biggest innovation trends hitting in 2015?
We talked about one today; Ultra boost is an important one for me. Boost reset the industry, and makes a huge difference for runners. Not only is the step-in immediate, but also the running sensation; you’ll feel more fresh, you’ll feel more energy and you’ll feel like you can run further, faster, and that’s not to be taken lightly. As we expand boost in multiple categories now, I can’t get basketball guys to take it off, even if we want to hit a different price point, they’re saying ‘I’m wearing Boost’, so as we look to put the product into Baseball, American Football and even Football, I think you’ve got a great opportunity to really replace EVA as we know it today. That’s a big one for me. Obviously we could talk about Wearables; it’s a very interesting field, we’ve got a lot of things going on there that we’re not ready to talk about yet, but we’re not to be taken lightly. We’ve got a 450-patent family in that area, so when the Tech companies on the left coast of America come to talk to us, they know what we have, not just from a ‘leading industry, with miCoach team systems’ that Germany AND Argentina both trained in for the World Cup, but we’ve got that data, and the techniques that can bring it to the consumer. We’re weighing our options at the moment regarding which partners to go with.
Do different markets have different types of product that sell better, and if so, how would you characterise the difference between the US fitness consumer and the European fitness consumer?
It’s a great question. Every market always has nuances, but I try to look at it through the similarities. Sport is sport, and I think if you’re true to that, you can really start to make some headway. Whether it be football, or fitness or running, I think we try to make the best for the athlete, and then there might be a design nuance; there may be an 8-inch short versus a 12-inch short in the US because Europeans always wear a little shorter. It might be a tighter fit around the ankle on pants than the American’s might want. It’s about more of a styling question at that point. But the performance, the innovation, the best for the athlete… that’s universal. Then as you go into it you have to style a bit. If you start with the similarities, it’s always easier to just edit in the differences.
You recently bought in 3 super high profile designers from Nike, and have opened an epic design studio in Brooklyn. It sounds great. Can you talk a little bit about the plans they have and how they might change things for Adidas going forward?
I think one of the key things in any industry, particularly ours, is creativity. I think we’ve got to have a culture of creativity and innovation, and we have to be relentless about that. I make no substitutions or sacrifices, I cut no corners when it comes to that. I aim high and we as a brand must aim even higher. When we went out there, we wanted to get the best of the best, and I feel that we’ve landed them. These 3 guys, their records speak for themselves. Denis Dekovic is renowned for the Magista and the Hypervenom before that in Football; we’ve got Mark Miner who does all the Free, all the running product for Nike and has been one of the leading Running designers in footwear; and also Marc Dolce who’s the sportswear guy. I feel it was a dream come true, I’m excited to work with them all, and I’m excited to get them help us be a more creative and innovative culture. That’s what I expect for them to bring, and having them in Brooklyn is a ‘two-for-two’ because we wanted to open up a studio anyway, and starting it with them is a great thing for me. It gives us an American point of view to marry with the machinery that we have in Germany. The idea for me is to get that overall personality right, so we have the innovation, and the engineering and the German machine, supported with some American insights; I think that’s really critical for us to accelerate into a winning stage.
You’ve run Footwear Marketing, Brand Marketing and Sports Performance marketing in the past, the ‘Marketing’ component is clearly a crucial part of Adidas right now, especially in the US. Can you talk a little bit about what you want to express with your message in 2015?
It goes back to Sport. We’ve never run a Sports campaign. From a messaging standpoint, we’ve never said ‘this is what we stand for as a Sports brand’. We’ve always said, hey we’re ‘Impossible Is Nothing’, ‘Become Provocative’, we’ve said we’re ‘All In’ from the Court to the Catwalk, but we never really said ‘we’re a sports brand and the best one in the world’. What we’ll launch in the next 3 weeks is called Sports 15, a series of Kick Ass sports ads. You’ll also see a much more determined approach in Originals with our Superstar campaign to get back to being the OG; we’ve got 2 really great brand marks that just need to be cleaned up a bit; 1 is the Original Sports Brand, and the other is The Best Sports Brand. How do we get back to that, so that when a kid looks at a shoe or a commercial, they see either the OG with the foil, or they see the Best with the badge of sport. Even the ways we talk about our brands are going to be different. But internally, this is as important as externally, so we’re really sharpening that up. Then over the next 9 months we’ve got to do a massive reorganisation to allow ourselves to be much more clear in that, and hold people clearly accountable for delivering on those results.
It’s your 21st year with the brand. You’ve seen plenty of 5 year plans. Can you talk a little bit about how you’d like the company to look in the next 5 years?
I’ve been a part of many 5 year plans, and I think the important learning for me is 5 year plans can’t be fixed. The world isn’t static, and you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen tomorrow. We’ve got tonnes of examples in the past 30 days; nobody saw the Rouble crisis, nobody saw the Terrorist Attacks, nobody saw the strength of the Dollar, just to name a few that are out of your control as a business person, but they have an effect on your consumers, and you have to be able to react to that. One of the things that we’ve been doing a lot is really working closer with brands we admire, whether it be Disney and Pixar, whether it be Red Bull, whether it be Google, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to them about how they set themselves up. We don’t want to be static any more. Yes we want to set that 5 year ambition, and we want to have a very clear ambition to be the best sports brand in the world; and we want to script the beginning of that path, but you can’t script the middle, so to me, what we’ve learned from Google – and I took [some senior colleagues] down to Zurich to work with their European Headquarters for a 3 day offsite – is basically ‘Launch and Iterate’. Don’t try and get everything right, get it out there and let the consumer help make it better. That’s kind of what we’re doing today; you see a very rough place and platform, we give you guys some information… we’re giving you studios to shoot, news rooms to publish, access to leadership to talk and ask questions, and then you shape your own story. That’s what we want to do with consumers, as they are ultimately the new voice; go on twitter right now, and there’s 1000 things already published on this event itself. I think to me it’s about maintaining that flexibility, and I want to steal that phrase from the digital age, which is ‘Launch and Iterate’. I think you have to use that mentality, to get stuff out there, and then we’ll make it better with everyones help. That’s going to be critical to the 5 year plan as we go forwards; we obviously want to build a better brand, we obviously want to be more profitable, we obviously want to win more market share… those are great things to want, but you can’t script every little thing, and I think previous plans have tried that too much, and it locks you in. It makes you handcuffed to a plan that’s maybe no longer valuable.
Can you talk a bit about the 1bn Manchester United sponshorship deal. What do you consider before pulling the trigger on that sort of thing, and why Manchester United?
We look at everything from every angle. We look at the cost, the sales potential, but more importantly the branding opportunity and how it works for our consumer. There’s not so many assets that come up like Man U on a regular basis. Say what you will about their current form, whether you’re a fan or otherwise, it’s Man U, they have the largest fan-base in the world bar none, they have the largest following in Asia bar none, they have 60 million fans. To me it’s about growing advocates; the deal gets really cheap, really fast if we change the whole license-sponsorship model. If I can convert those 60m fans into 60m Adidas advocates, it’s a cheap deal, and it’s automatically valued in a different world. If you just look at it by license sales, of course you’d question it, you’d be crazy not to. But you also have to look at the net sales we have there, the price you pay for that, and the standard that’s going on in most teams, and if you add on the additions with the fan-base, it gets attractive. We’re planning to reset the entire way that license deals are done with this one; we’re doing it with the Byrons, the Chelsea’s, the Real’s; they’re all very important, but it was great to have them on board. There’s no-one that comes close to our portfolio as far as clubs are concerned, so we’re very bullish.
I recently visited your spectacular HQ campus in Herzo, Germany. Can you talk a little bit about how important it is, and what it represents for you?
Being an American, I love the commitment to the ‘sacred ground’, that we stayed in Herzo where we were founded all those years ago. I think there’s something really special about that, because you feel it. The facilities we’ve built are second-to-none; the workspace, colocating all the teams together, common insight, open communication, day care facilities, the gym, the track, the restaurant. The future though is unscripted, again. Out ambition is to win, and we’ll hold no prisoners for that. We won’t be afraid of setting up virtual campuses if we need to, to win other places, and I’ll point at the Brooklyn design studios as an example. If I need to do that in Shanghai, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, you name it, we’ll do what we need to do to win. Herzo will always be our HQ, but we won’t be afraid of investing in America, or London or other areas to set ourselves up in a more winning position.
Finally, I got to interview Ben Herath, VP of Design for the Running category. Whilst Eric’s interview was a great insight into the company and what’s driving it, Ben had some fabulous vignettes about the design angle:
FOT: I recently visited Herzogenaurach, Germany (Adidas headquarters) what’s it like being based there and what does the place mean to you?
BH: Actually I’ve been in Herzo for the last 12 years and I’m from Australia originally. It was always a dream to live in Europe so for me it’s been incredible to live in a European city, I have to say. I love the charm of Nuremberg as well – I live just outside the city walls there!
Would you mind telling me a little bit about your design journey and how you got to where you are now please?
I studied industrial design at the university of South Australia, grew up in Adelaide and I worked in different parts and places around the world, then found my way to Adidas 12 years ago. I’ve always loved sports and I’ve always loved creativity. I’ve always been drawing and building, and I think that’s what drew me to Adidas really. As an Australian I also wanted to travel the world, and the idea of designing great things for a great company in some far away place was always a dream – so that’s a little bit about my journey. It took me a while to get to Adidas but the last 12 years have been an absolute blast and I loved every minute of it.
You designed the iconic Adidas Feather – could you please tell us a little bit about how the design process works from inception though to end product?
Oh, I’m going to have to go back in time to think of that one, but it’s pretty much the same for all shoes, whether it was the Adidas Feather which was a few years back or today’s UltraBoost. It’s a similar process of having a goal in mind about what we’re trying to create and for us here it was the greatest running shoe that we’ve ever made. How do you start drawing that up, how do you start sketching what that might mean? It come back to our insight. With Feather, at the time, it was creating the lightest shoe and that drove the design; for Ultra Boost, it was about how do we create this energising experience, something that you haven’t felt before, that feels unique. So that was a tougher challenge I have to say. When you’re talking about ‘just make it more lightweight’, you’ve got functional parameters there, but when you’re looking at building an experience to a shoe that’s a tougher problem to solve, I have to say. So what that meant was instead of sketching we spent more time mocking samples up, we spent more time making different prototypes , tested different materials that tried different constructions, different things that stretched and moved with your foot and throughout that we kept finding better ways in building the shoe. So depending on the shoe at some point it goes from sketching to prototyping and building, and this shoe I have to say got to prototyping very quickly in the process. We were building different samples, but once it’s in 3D and you’re able to put it on your feet and go out for a run… Luckily most of us on the team are ‘sample size’ so we could build a prototype and try it on and go out for a run. That immediate feed-back and ‘oh that’s not working’ or ‘hey we need to improve here’ or ‘strengthen there’ or ‘make this area stretch more’ – that instant feed back is what drives the design – it’s very much prototype driven. We also have pools of testers that we work with from all around the world. The feedback we get then also informs about how the shoe is going to look.
From a design perspective do you ever feel ‘restrained’ in the slightly more limited materials you have to play with?
I think the ‘restraints’ inspire creativity. With perimeters, you suddenly you have to rethink how you’re gong to create this experience with with just those pieces, and it really forces you to solve problems in new ways. We wanted to create a logo which represents the premium nature of the design and we were inspired by the badges on the back of BMW’s driven on the Autobahns – back and forth to work and we thought that would be cool. We actually went to the guys who do the badges and said ‘look can you put that on a shoe for us?’ and they hadn’t done that before. We did a lot of test trials and right down to the finish. They had a whole load of different metallic finishes that they used, and I think this is ‘grand piano gloss black’ and ‘gold metallic satin’; we did loads of different trial runs with these finishes and that’s an example of us going outside our own industry, finding something we thought was cool and bringing to back into this.
Who have been your design mentor that have inspired you?
I would say my design mentors are the ones I’m working with. They challenge me all the time and our design team is filled with creative designers thats are constantly feeding off each other and sharing ideas. The footwear designers sit right next to the apparel designers, and we’re always inspiring each other. What works on apparel; does that work on footwear and vice versa. So what’s inspired me I would say is what happens everyday amongst the design teams.
Any tips for aspiring shoe designers out there?
Well I would say creativity passion for sports, passion for shoes, of course, and but then also a curiosity and a willingness to learn. A curiosity to ask ‘why does that shoe look like that?’ and also a willingness to try new things, to draw new things, and to wrap new materials around the foot that you’ve never wrapped around the foot before. The sort of experimentation, in trying and thats just passion and encouragement you know. Keep trying to build shoes in different ways.
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