On the eve of the launch of the Aurora-BL, the latest – and perhaps most daring and aesthetically distinctive – performance running shoe to date from Brooks Running, Nikhil Jain sports a tranquil grin. If Jain, the senior manager of the BlueLine at Brooks team responsible for the daring Aurora-BL’s marketplace arrival, is nervous, he’s certainly not showing it.
“I’m already happy,” Jain beams during a June 16 video chat. “We’re leapfrogging into the future with what running can look like and feel like.”
With its space age-inspired design characterized by a bulbous white, nitrogen-infused, decoupled midsole and shimmering silver heel counter, the $200 Aurora-BL is unlike anything else in Brooks’ current footwear lineup. It is the future in the present, a calculated, thoughtful and intentional concoction energetically and unapologetically crafted to challenge the status quo.
Of course, that’s the foremost charge of the BlueLine lab team at Brooks — to leverage the latest insights, innovations and education to create never-before-done, never-before-seen running shoes.
Blue Line Origins
Nearly four years ago, even as Brooks Running stood firmly atop the run specialty mountaintop, company leadership recognized that the brand needed to be faster and more responsive in reacting to consumer needs, new insights and technological advancements. For an enterprise accustomed to producing millions of running shoes each year, the traditional two-year process of taking a shoe from concept to market wasn’t cutting it.
“It wasn’t a pace able to keep up with runners,” says Jain, who joined Brooks in 2016 after spending time with Saucony, Puma and Merrell.
The Seattle-based company responded by creating the BlueLine lab, an internal innovation accelerator tasked to “chart the course for the future of running shoes by developing innovative prototypes at a sprinter’s pace.” The BlueLine team takes its name – and really its inspirational ethos – from the blue line that identifies the most direct path from start to finish on many major marathon courses.
Rather than the typical 24-month concept-to-market process with traditional performance running models, BlueLine relies on a cross-functional team consisting of designers, developers, product line managers, chemists, engineers, biomechanics scientists and others to cut that timeline 25-50 percent. The group’s process involves rethinking – and challenging – everything from how the brand designs its footwear to its testing, prototyping and manufacturing processes. Everything is fair game — materials, textiles, foams, plates and so on.
“Our propensity is to push the limits … and to think about what’s possible,” Jain says. “And it’s fun having a challenge where you don’t know what the end looks like.”
Fun, yes, but also uncomfortable, adds Bryan Bhark, senior developer of footwear innovation at Brooks.
“Because everything we do as part of the BlueLine team is new,” he says.
To be certain, though, the BlueLine team does not pursue change merely for the sake of change. Where existing process or technologies work, the BlueLine team leverages those to advance its footwear creations. Where it can stretch innovation and apply its most recent learnings, it does.
“Our work is still rooted in the Brooks’ idea of being purposeful,” Brooks footwear designer Ross Damon says.
Once ready to go to market, Brooks releases its BlueLine footwear in small, limited batches, a move that eases the process of absorbing and scaling a new technology for manufacturing partners and suppliers. Yet more, the smaller runs allow Brooks to get product into the marketplace faster so the brand can listen, evolve and proceed accordingly.
In June 2020, Brooks debuted its first two BlueLine creations in the Hyperion Tempo, a speedy neutral shoe, and the Hyperion Elite, a carbon-fiber plated model designed for race day. Both models experimented with nitrogen-infused midsoles promising a lightweight, responsive ride.
Two months later, Brooks unveiled the BlueLine’s third brainchild in the Catamount, a trail sibling to the Hyperion Tempo. Building upon its work on the Hyperion models, particularly with the nitrogen-injected DNA Flash midsole, the BlueLine team produced the Catamount in just six months.
The Aurora BL Takes Flight
In developing BlueLine footwear, Jain says consumer insights sometimes lead; at other times, innovation sparks invention. The BlueLine team’s role is to connect the two – insights and innovation – so that Brooks can enter the market with novel performance running footwear that hits on runner needs.
“For us, it’s really about how we can surprise and delight runners with something they are not expecting,” Jain says.
For the Aurora-BL, the lightbulb moment occurred in the second half of 2019 as runners consistently expressed their desire for an effortless ride and less impact. Engaged with so many of its footwear peers in an arms race on the speed side – efforts, in fact, that helped spark the launch of the Hyperion Tempo and Hyperion Elite – the BlueLine team also identified knowledge it could translate from sleek, race-oriented speed shoes to high-end cushioned models. Education beget invention.
Imagining an ultra-cushioned neutral training shoe, the BlueLine group drew inspiration from the 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking Apollo 11 mission in 1969 in which humans took their first steps on the moon.
In his initial sketches, Damon took the idea of space exploration to heart and drew plans for a futuristic aesthetic. Footwear engineers doubled down on the idea of nitrogen-infused cushioning and created DNA Loft v3, the softest, lightest ride ever created in Brooks’ midsole arsenal. A decoupled midsole, meanwhile, promoted natural movement by enabling the heel and forefoot to move independently of one another while a sculpted heel and toe offered a smooth transition on and off the ground.
Along the way, BlueLine team members and other wear testers ran in early prototypes, feeding feedback and data to designers, engineers and biomechanics scientists to inform revisions and new iterations en route to the Aurora-BL’s June 17 launch of 25,000 pairs into the retail galaxy.
“Despite not looking like any previous Brooks product, everything on the shoe has a purpose and intention,” Bhark assures.
Driving Innovation at Brooks
While many run specialty insiders were familiar with Brooks’ BlueLine lab, the Aurora-BL shines a bright public light on the internal squad. The shoe’s name incorporates the BL acronym while the Aurora-BL’s shoebox even broadcasts the BlueLine’s prominent involvement with a top-of-the-box sticker that reads “Limit-Pushing Technology. Limited-Edition Quantity.” With Brooks’ marketing, PR and creative, the brand constructed a story around the BlueLine’s enterprising role and, perhaps most tellingly, previewed the future of running at Brooks.
“Everything on the Aurora-BL is intentional and gives an eye into the future,” Jain says.
To be certain, elements of the Aurora-BL will trickle into other products – education begetting more invention. In fact, the DNA Loft v3 cushioning introduced in the Aurora-BL will appear in next spring’s Glycerin update.
“We owe other product teams actionable learnings on materials, process, technology, design aesthetic, fit characteristics and more,” Bhark says of the BlueLine’s role in driving future footwear creations at Brooks.
As Brooks continues its push to be a $1 billion brand and cement it status as run specialty’s top player, the BlueLine team will remain an important force in propelling innovation and responding to consumer needs. Jain says the BlueLine team is currently looking outside of foams to bring new running experiences to consumers, though he admits the group’s focus could shift as new technologies and insights arise. The learning, after all, never ceases.
“We’re moving the fastest way possible from concept to market and doing that by pushing the envelope from an innovation perspective,” Jain says. “We’re going to be that amplification engine moving faster than anything else at Brooks.”