How Brooks Running Almost Lost Its Way

Photo: Courtesy Publisher.

The iconic running company hasn’t always had such a tight focus.

In 2001, I became Brooks Running‘s fourth CEO in two years. Employees had a pool on how long I’d last; most did not know bankruptcy was only a payday away. The 90-year-old company was over $30 million in debt, and sixth or seventh in sales behind every other athletic brand — most of which had daily marketing budgets that dwarfed our annual spend.

Photo: Courtesy Publisher.


Two weeks into my role as CEO, I announced that Brooks would pivot to a running-only brand, setting course to become the No. 1 choice for runners in the highly competitive performance footwear market. I was told repeatedly it wouldn’t work, but I saw a path for Brooks to survive and thrive. My new book, Running with Purpose, explores some strategies for success when you are David taking on Goliath. Here are a few of its best parts:

1. Figure out who you’re for

“Who you are for” is the biggest question every company has to answer. When I came to Brooks, we needed to unite the team behind a compelling reason for being. At the time, other brands featured epic athletic achievement in their marketing. We thought Brooks should be about supporting runners — and only runners — and divested from everything except running gear to create high-quality products at affordable prices.

2. Find your contraposition

When your competitor’s daily marketing budget dwarfs your annual spend, you have to play a different game. When we re-founded the Brooks brand, other brands featured epic athletic achievement in their marketing. We thought Brooks could occupy a more personal, runner-to-runner ethos, encapsulated by our tagline “Run Happy” that celebrates the many reasons why people run.

We built a marathon expo booth to look like a giant bowl of pasta, a favorite pre-race meal among runners. At another marathon, we debuted a booth that was made to look like a M*A*S*H unit, only we called it B*R*A*S*H (Brooks Running Athlete Support Hospital). In both booths we offered gait analysis, talked about biomechanics and shoes technologies, and answered runners’ questions about their game plans for the race. The idea was to present Brooks as an approachable brand for the everyday runner.

3. Be consistent

You earn trust and authenticity in the mind of your customer through behavior, doing what you say you will, consistently over time. In 2016, participation in races began to fall, and Brooks hit a wall. Conventional industry wisdom was building that performance running gear at premium prices wouldn’t make the cut for Millennials, a generation with more fitness and exercise choices — and college debt — than ever before.

While other brands chased the athleisure trend, Brooks replanted its flag firmly in performance products for regular runners and communicated that at every turn. We revamped our entire line with runner-focused innovation and attention to detail. By 2017, Brooks was growing again. Since then, Brooks has grown steadily — and last year earned a billion-dollar valuation — by sticking to that one simple mission.

The takeaway

Especially when times are tough, a brand’s choices and behaviors communicate what you are all about. I love these moments. They are competitive strategy gold for a challenger brand because they are market signaling opportunities with a megaphone. The way you manage through those times — led by your purpose — leaves a lasting impression on customers, partners, employees, owners, and investors.