How – and why – ASICS created a most un-ASICS-like shoe.
By Daniel P. Smith
ASICS knew it needed to be better After years of standing atop the run specialty channel, ASICS dropped from its perch as other footwear players grabbed market share throughout this decade.
By its own admission, ASICS became too conservative, too content and too married to legacy shoes. The brand stalled and it needed to modernize its approach with dynamic new products and a more energized go-to-market strategy.
And that’s precisely been ASICS’ focus of late, a reality underscored by the February debut of a performance running shoe unlike anything else the Japan-based enterprise has ever produced.
More than two years ago, ASICS leadership began earnestly investigating a singular question: How might ASICS make running easier for the masses?
Making the MetaRide
“It’s not about breaking world records, but rather how could we help everyday runners be more efficient,” says AJ Andrassy, ASICS global director of performance running sales.
Long focused on consumer research, ASICS consistently heard people say they wanted running to be easier. The question, of course, was how that might be accomplished. That task fell heavily on the shoulders of ASICS’ Institute of Sport Science (ISS) in Kobe, Japan, an innovative outfit that birthed gel and handles ASICS’ internal product testing and creation.
Running with the challenge, the ISS team began conducting biomechanical analyses around efficiency’s relationship to running footwear, dove into data and research studies, tinkered with key concepts like center of mass and forefoot drops and experimented with different hand-carved midsoles before determining that the solution needed to shift the center of mass to the rear foot, which would lock the ankle and reduce shock and save energy with each stride.
After two years of extensive collaboration between ISS and ASICS’ Boston-based design team, seven prototypes, third-party testing at a university lab to examine the project’s energy-efficiency chops and over 70 samples tested more than 300 kilometers, ASICS arrived at the MetaRide. A most un-ASICS-like shoe, the zero-drop MetaRide sports a rocker-shaped last and 31mm-thick stack height on the men’s model (30mm on the women’s version).
“Some of our other prototypes were even more out there and, frankly, they needed to be because we started from the ground up here and looked at energy efficiency in a completely different way,” says Westin Galloway, ASICS global product line manager for performance running.
Company leaders, in fact, have labeled the MetaRide one of the “most important innovations” in ASICS’ 70-year history.
The MetaRide’s construction and design unapologetically pursues improving efficiency through three critical phases in the gait cycle – ground impact, transition to toe off and swing phase – and was precision engineered to help minimize movement in the ankle joint, the area where most energy is expended.
A New ASICS Experience
“This is a completely new experience from ASICS and we’re delivering a protection and efficiency story here that works,” Andrassy says.
ASICS paired the MetaRide’s distinctive shape with bold aesthetics — a nearly all-black upper atop a vibrant cherry red midsole.
Since dropping at the end of February at ASICS.com and select run specialty accounts, the $250 MetaRide has generated plenty of interest.
On the Let’s Run forum, an oft-visited spot among hard-core runners, comments largely challenged the MetaRide’s weight and price as well as ASICS’ motivations.
While Road Trail Run’s Sam Winebaum similarly questioned the weight and price and identified some midfoot and forefoot nuisances, he nevertheless called the MetaRide “spectacularly crafted” and unlike any other heavy-duty trainer he had tested. He labeled the shoe’s upper “pure class” and said the MetaRide offered a “smooth, consistent, easily repeatable gait cycle with effortless toe off from rocker.”
At the Columbus Running Company, a former Running Store of the Year honoree, Jacob Heyerly compares the MetaRide to models like the Hoka Clifton and the Nike Zoom Fly and says his experience with “ASICS’ most forward-thinking, technologically advanced and innovative shoe to date” is a positive one.
“Somehow,” Heyerly says, “ASICS has found the perfect balance between a durable and stable fit that is also capable of running fast.”
The early feedback and intrigue the MetaRide has generated represent undeniable positives for ASICS, a brand longing for some marketplace buzz.
“We have elite athletes wearing [the MetaRide], weekend warriors embracing it and now this technology is helping a wide range of runners enjoy running, which is what we’re all about at ASICS,” Galloway says.
Sparking a Resurgence?
The MetaRide’s promising debut stands as an encouraging development for ASICS’ Americas business, which saw its revenues drop some 15 percent in fiscal year 2018 amid weak U.S. sales.
As the first shoe in ASICS’ new energy-saving franchise, the MetaRide’s concept car-like attributes will trickle into other new models and throughout the ASICS lineup. Galloway teases additional products with the MetaRide’s “efficiency concept” baked in, including a “takedown model” set to be released in the fall, while other features of the MetaRide will cascade into some of ASICS’ legacy models. The MetaRide’s heel clutch, for example, is weaving into the well-established Kayano stability model.
Andrassy says the MetaRide “shows ASICS is serious about innovation” and eager to “win in running,” the brand’s unofficial 2019 rallying cry.
To that point, ASICS VP–footwear merchandising Ian Dickinson promises innovative technology that’s going to “shake things up in [the running] industry.”
Science and Art
“The market is going to see unique things from us,” Dickinson promises. “We’re going to balance sports science, art and a progressive approach to aesthetics that represents what consumers are looking for.”
But ASICS leaders understand there’s much work to be done, especially given the competitive battle for space on footwear walls. Arguably the most sought-after brand in the run specialty channel throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, some running accounts have grown accustomed to life without ASICS, or at least a slimmed-down assortment from the brand.
In an effort to modernize its approach and get more eyeballs on the brand, ASICS has shaken up its leadership and integrated new blood into its enterprise, signed elite athletes such as Emma Bates and Allie Kieffer, inked a sponsorship deal with the Los Angeles Marathon and shifted its product segmentation structure to address three areas — Core Performance Sports, Sport Style and Performance Running, still the company’s largest business with more than $1.5 billion in global sales.
The hope is that the efforts re-engage ASICS fans, including the running retailers who once fueled the brand’s rise.
Prior to his departure in February after nearly four years heading ASICS Americas Group, Gene McCarthy acknowledged that ASICS had slowly lost touch with the run specialty marketplace and assured that the nation’s running stores were “uniquely important to [ASICS].”
Celebrating Its 70th
Celebrating its 70th year in 2019, ASICS continues to tout a re-energized focus on serving the channel and “rekindling” latent relationships. Dickinson, a former run specialty store employee in Atlanta, says ASICS is committed to partnering with running retailers, listening to their feedback on elements such as fit and technology and “getting the right product” into run shops.
The MetaRide, a most un-ASICS-like shoe, represents a notable first step in the company’s attempts to turn its fortunes. Whether it sparks the company’s marketplace resurgence is yet to be determined, but it most certainly serves a tangible reminder that ASICS understands it needs to be better.