What do you think of when you see a pair of New Balance sneakers? Comfort? Athletic performance? Your dad?
Marketing Communications students in Don Hurwitz’s capstone class, a practicum course required of undergrads, wanted to make you think of fashion-forward urban youth. Their campaigns for New Balance so impressed executives from the Boston-based athletic apparel company that the students were invited to their new headquarters on Wednesday, June 22, to share their strategies.
“I don’t think it’s that frequent that someone comes back and does an encore presentation; but at the same time, the capstones are more than an academic assignment, and this is proof of the pudding,” Hurwitz said.
Hurwitz’s class was divided into four teams who spent the spring semester crafting a marketing campaign for one of two clients: Friends of Fort Point Channel and New Balance, which had retained Hurwitz’s marketing agency in the 1990s and where he still has connections.
Radha Badani, New Balance director of global insights and analytics, and Marianne McLaughlin, global consumer and market insights leader, served as liaisons on the project and gave the students their brief: Market New Balance sneakers—known for quality but lacking in street cred—to urban youth and convince retail giant Foot Locker, a go-to store for the target demographic, to devote more shelf space to New Balance.
“We thought, why don’t we give them a project that they can really relate to, being in the core demographic,” Badani said. “How do we speak to the Foot Locker consumer in a relevant way that doesn’t alienate our current core consumer, but allows us to win this [new] demographic?
Badani and McLaughlin came to campus at the end of the semester to hear the presentations and decided their colleagues at New Balance needed to hear what these Emerson students had to say.
On June 22, members of each team gave New Balance executives in Boston and New York (via conference call) their ideas for getting 16- to 24-year-old urban males to seek out New Balance shoes.
Team 1, represented by Sean O’Connor, Michael Park, Chiara Mingione, and Josh Latin (all ’16), focused on a minimalist advertising aesthetic, with social media seeding (getting people to post on social media wearing/mentioning the product), collaborations, and guerilla events with celebrities and “style influencers.” The students suggested a partnership with men’s street fashion designer Gosha Rubchinskiy and an ice cream truck sneaker giveaway in New York with Queens-based hip-hop artist Action Bronson. Both men have been spotted wearing New Balance.
“He’s not sponsored [by the company],” Park said of Bronson; “he just actually likes New Balance because they’re great shoes.”
Team 2, represented by recent graduates Brandon Stoffers, Alex Parrish, and Logan Corbly, decided to change the definition of “performance” in “performance footwear.”
“[Young urban consumers] don’t interpret performance in the conventional sense,” Parrish said. “They don’t even consider running to be a sport. They perform whenever they express themselves.”
Using the hashtag #ExpressYourself, the team envisioned a campaign around creativity and individuality. They pitched graffiti art installations with Snapchat geofilters, a New Balance Spotify playlist, New Balance-sponsored “performance trucks” featuring musicians and dancers to spur social media sharing, and a social media design contest.
The New Balance execs, who have devised their own strategy to reach younger consumers, and the students talked about some of the challenges of marketing today, including how to make “collabs” stand out when every influencer has multiple deals and partnerships going.
They also weighed the pros and cons of a “conservative” company such as New Balance working with celebrities who may not always project a squeaky-clean image.
Latin said seeding is a safer arrangement than endorsements because the connection between the celebrity and the company appears more organic and less tacit.
“It’s definitely a balance, but I feel like you have to take some risks,” Park said. “If you want to get involved in this, you have to go where [the audience] is.”
Badani, the analytics director, said she thought both groups did a great job, and both offered ideas that were on the right track.
“Both had aspects of their project that were unique and different that I hadn’t seen before. Specifically, the idea of creating a playlist on Spotify—it’s such a simple idea that I don’t think was on the radar until this group brought it up,” she said.
“Collaborations, seeding, all of that…we’ve been doing that; those tactics aren’t new. But I think they brought up interesting ways to connect with the core consumers, so maybe there’s a different group of influencers we can go after.”
Stoffers, who was account executive on his team, said the hardest part of the project was keeping the aspects that make New Balance what it is, and finding a way to pitch that to a new audience.
“I’m really happy Don [Hurwitz] was able to get such a great experience with [New Balance],” Stoffers said. “It was much more hands-on than I was expecting it to be, and that’s a good thing.”