Brooks was a “forgettable brand on the brink of a second bankruptcy,” so CEO Jim Weber decided to focus on the basics. According to a new Bloomberg Businessweek story, Weber “scrapped almost the entire product line—no more cleats or tennis or basketball shoes, no $30 cross-trainers sold at Walmart—and refocused the company on the one thing that still sold well: high-end shoes designed for serious runners.” And it worked! On the backs of rich people who run a lot, Brooks became a $500 million company.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Weber is going to the press saying that he wants to double the company in size by doing the exact same thing that made it a turd in the first place—selling crap to casual shoppers. He was likely put up to this by the Berkshire Hathaway investors who own Brooks, and it shows.
Weber laments in the story that his company’s shoes only sell well among runners who run more than 30 miles a week, and sell extremely poorly among runners who run less than 10 miles a week. There’s a reason for that! Massive shoemakers like Nike and Adidas make their shoes so cheaply and widely that their products are shoddy at worst and unreliable at best—you could buy consecutive pairs of seemingly identical Nikes, and they might fit your feet differently.
For someone who runs half an hour twice a week, that’s no big deal. It’s not worth spending $500 a year on fancy shoes for something you do four hours a month. But if you run an hour a day, and race twice a month, a good pair of shoes can absolutely be worth the investment. (Here’s the part where you’re supposed to handwave about the possible ineffectiveness of running shoes, which is absolutely likely, but also I’ve been buying the same pair of $125 running shoes every 2-4 months for 15 years, so.)
And so Brooks catered to that high-end customer about as well as they could. The only pair of Brooks I’ve ever run in ended in a stress fracture, but Brooks absolutely dominates the specialty running market and has a well-deserved reputation for quality. As the piece points out, they’re the most popular shoe at the Boston Marathon and Olympic Trials—the two races that America’s most dedicated runners aspire to qualify for.
That’s apparently not enough for Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Brooks. You can tell that Weber is out to sea in his ambitions to capture the extremely casual runner, and there’s a reason why: trying to sell broadly marketable products is what tanked Brooks decades ago in the first place.
Bloomberg writes that Brooks is trying to reach the masses by making shoes that still cost $150, but look cool or have extreme foam in them. That won’t work. In order to sell running shoes to people who don’t really run, you have to make cheap, widely distributable garbage. That’s the opposite of what Brooks does, and won’t appeal to anyone. The hardcore runner will go to another specialty brand, and the big shoe companies will always own the casual customer. And Brooks will be a casualty of investors not being happy with a perfectly good company.