Bostonians take their running seriously.
Boston is home to the world’s “statement race” — the Boston Marathon. There was a time when you trained there if you considered yourself a serious runner, although Kenya has taken that spot.
And although Runner’s World magazine had the nerve to rank it No. 3 in the best running cities in the U.S., you’d be hard-pressed to find a Chowdahead who doesn’t think Boston is the running capital of the world.
Matt Taylor, co-founder and CEO of running apparel brand Tracksmith has found himself and his company a little slice of Boston’s running history. Go to his Back Bay retail location on any given Sunday morning, and “the champion of the running class” is hosting up to 150 people fresh off a long group run, drinking coffee and perusing his branded collection of high-wick shorts, running sweatshirts, pants and other gear that he has taken from a hobby to a solid direct-to-consumer (D2C) sports brand poised to break out into new categories and new sales plateaus in 2020.
“Right now, we’re in the peak training period for the Boston Marathon, which is coming up in April,” Taylor said. “Yes, we will draw a crowd at the store. You know, all these people may or may not be shopping, but we’re certainly making an impression, and they’re having a good experience. And although we don’t have sort of a control group to cast against, I mean we certainly feel like there’s a lesson in the business when we’re doing those things well.”
Lately, Taylor and Tracksmith have been doing several things well. The eCommerce-physical location hybrid is marking 2020 with a presence at the world’s leading marathons throughout the year (New York City, Boston, Berlin, Tokyo and London) and is seeing a bounce in sales tied to a comeback in high-performance running shoes, which is a market Taylor is planning on entering with the Tracksmith brand. For now, Tracksmith is riding an athleisure wave.
“We are firmly in an athleisure lifestyle cycle,” said Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry advisor for The NPD Group, as well as a sports industry expert.
“At a macro level, I just think that historically, society has sort of proven out multiple times that when times are uncertain and people feel maybe higher levels of stress than they normally would, running is something that usually has an uptick, and that’s why running has traditionally been recession proof,” Taylor said. “Because when we’ve had periods of economic or societal uncertainty, running is one thing that people can sort of control. I think that will carry into 2020.”
Taylor said marketing activities reflect his current scale as a small D2C brand. Digital advertising is placed predominantly on Facebook and Instagram. Direct mail pieces and a catalog dominate acquisition and retention efforts. For several years, Tracksmith has activated pop-up shops at the major marathons, with Tokyo added this year. Content marketing is a staple of the website, with Taylor himself conducting interviews with runners of local and national prominence. The photos shown on the site are light on drama and aesthetics. The subjects look like they’re running hard and sweating, not posing.
“Everything we do is really approached from a sort of storytelling perspective,” he said. “That’s something that our team does extremely well. I think that even our emails and our on-site content is aimed at seasonal launches or capsule collections, and those things just work very well for us.”
Taylor founded Tracksmith in 2014. He was previously the director of sprinter Usain Bolt’s official iOS game, and prior to that he was head of marketing for the running, training and fitness unit at PUMA. He studied psychology and biology at Yale. He is also on the board of directors at Shoefitr Inc., a shoe fitting technology that was recently purchased by Amazon.
He said his time at PUMA showed him that regardless of how much apparel showed promise as a category, footwear always won. So, when he started Tracksmith, he put some new instincts to work.
“Having worked at a big company, you sort of see internally where the resources go, and by resources I mean both money, time and talents,” he said. “And so, footwear was always king until about five years ago, when apparel started to grow, but the resources didn’t. I saw an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, there are these brands that are very big and great at what they do, but they’re not spending too much time thinking about apparel.’”
So Tracksmith was born and now thrives as a D2C brand. Taylor is comfortable with that status.
“Certainly, the bigger brands that have relied on wholesale accounts have quit and rightfully so,” he said. “They focus on their own direct channels, whether that’s retail stores or their eCommerce platforms. But the ones that are driven by wholesale, well, you know, it’s hard. It’s trying to turn that tanker around in the ocean versus a little speedboat that can move overnight.”
Right now, Taylor has a speedboat. He’s betting he has enough gas in it to compete in the big race.