Caspar Yuill: New Balance’s resurgence from daggy to desirable

NB’s journey towards popularity and success is a fascinating story of how culture has the power to make or break a brand, writes Caspar Yuill.

By Caspar Yuill, senior strategist at AFFINITY

Remember the Crazy Stupid Love flick from 2011? And that scene where Ryan Gosling slaps Steve Carrell in the face for wearing 407s and then throws them over a railing? 

The story goes that little moment caused sales to fall almost immediately. And as a result, New Balance was in danger of losing its position as the fourth-largest shoe brand in the market. 

What followed was one of the biggest marketing turnarounds of the last decade. And curiously you won’t find it in any Effie entry. But NB’s journey towards popularity and success is a fascinating story of how culture has the power to make or break a brand. 

Smelly sneakers

New Balance’s original appeal was pale, male and stale. 

It was a dad joke. And definitely not on the radar of any new or younger buyers. 

According to Jacques Slade, sneaker aficionado, “I could walk in my neighbourhood on Saturday morning and see old white guys out mowing their lawns in a pair of New Balances.” And while dads are lovable, they’re not going to keep your brand alive. 

The second problem New Balance faced is that its appeal extended to very limited wearable occasions. Think running, taking the kids to football, and yes, mowing the lawn. Other, cooler brands were owning and expanding into celebrities, outdoor wear, and high fashion.  

The other problem was that New Balance had historically under-invested in advertising and sponsorship. The owner, Jim Davis, believed in being known for technical performance instead of big-ticket athlete sponsorships.  

It’s not like NB didn’t have technically excellent products – the 574, the 990, and the W320 were all great shoes. It’s just that no one knew about them, and they were being outgunned by the deep marketing pockets of Nike and Adidas.  

New Balance - Caspar Yuill - AFFINITY

Caspar Yuill

Stepping it up

Unlocking new audiences started with cross-brand collabs, the first of which was with the hot streetwear brand Aimé Leon Dore. 

The ALD 550s became a hit and inspired a slew of partnerships with Comme des Garçons, Joe Freshgoods, and Rich Paul. New Balance quickly became adept at picking collaborations with brands with credibility and currency with the new audiences they wanted to attract.  

The key to successful collabs was in part due to a new and culturally diverse team. Yuron White, vice president of Global Lifestyle, calls it the most diverse team he’s ever worked with: “I think we’re helping to unlock this brand to see even bigger things than where we’ve been in the past.” It made sense – to attract a different audience, New Balance also needed a different perspective from its marketing team.  

NB also ceded control of the product and marketing to its collaborators. The team understood that its collaborators had all the skills they didn’t and it gave New Balance the power and control to execute its vision. Bold campaigns like actor Jesse Williams pouring water into crystal glassware on a mossy tree stump or Joe Freshgoods’ ruminations on Chicago summertime helped shift perceptions. And new product developments like the whistle on the 574 Yurt helped solidify its new street cred. 

In a more traditional move, the brand also increased its marketing investment by 37% from 2019 to try and keep pace with its competitors. Clearly, New Balance had hit a growth ceiling that product innovation alone could not overcome and needed more investment to kickstart growth.  

There is no doubt other factors contributed to New Balance’s ascendance. No turnaround of this size happens in a vacuum. But clearly, the brand’s custodians saw the change they needed to create and followed that through with dogged determination in order to realise New Balance’s hard-won street cred position.

See also: Angela Smith: Not taking risks is the riskiest choice of all

To Top