Running Shoe Marketing

Photo Credit: luiginter

Original post on May 2008 | Edited by with author’s permission.

Humans have been barefoot for several million years (~2 million actually). It means that our bare feet have the ability to carry us around on all kinds of surfaces – hard ones as well as soft ones. It means that we have the ability to adapt ourselves to our surroundings. Finally, it means that our entire locomotive system – muscles, tendons, bones etc. evolved in conditions where maintaining balance was a constant factor – where we could create variation just by changing the way our feet hit the ground. Creating variation is a main factor in avoiding injuries or dilapidation, as people with a runner’s knee will know (my 4-times runner’s knee got me started on this project).

Most running shoes, unfortunately, try to control nature’s million-year-old design. A design that shaped and our feet to work unhindered. Since the introduction of the ‘modern’ running shoe in the 1970’s, the shoes have become increasingly over-built. Motion-control shoes have arch supports, thick absorbing soles, a tight fit etc. Most shoes have an elevated heel that causes us to heel-strike at all times. These restraints that control the way our feet interact with the ground is seen as beneficial.

A False State of Dependence

Why try to control feet? Well, one answer is comfort. Having something wrapped tightly around your feet feels nice. You feel like you can relax – that the shoes take care of you, when in fact they do not. By wearing over-cushioned/stabilized shoes, you are forced to walk or run in the exact same biomechanic way all the time, thus, your feet weaken and your joints will experience monotony and stress. And since you will not be able to use your body’s natural shock absorbing abilities, you will have to rely on the absorption technology in the heel and throughout the shoe. And here running shoe marketing comes in. This is in fact where the big money is. If running shoe companies can convince you that you depend on the shock absorption in the sole material, they can continue to develop new and fancy-named rubber that you will want to buy. Because no one wants injuries.

Improvised Solutions

So you have a classic marketing trick here: Offer a solution to a problem that did not have to be a problem in the first place. Most people’s feet would work perfectly without shoes – they have done so for millions of years. And yes, they work on hard, flat surfaces as well, so asphalt and flagstones are not an excuse for shoes (many of our ancestors lived on rocks and solid earth). The real problem occurred, when shoes came along. Some of the old specimens just kept us warm or protected our feet from hot surfaces, sharp stones etc., so they had a simple flat sole (like moccasins and sandals). But at one point in modern time shoes were suddenly supposed to be soft and bouncy, most likely because heel striking simply hurts without a bouncy sole. (Editors Note: With the explosion of ‘jogging’ in the ‘70’s, recreational jogging (not running) taught an entire generation of people incorrect form, enter the athletic shoe companies) And to help people keeping balance on these space hoppers the shoe upper had to be rigid, which is another answer to why shoes have to control our feet. Hence we ended up with jammed toes and inflexible feet. Our feet were reduced to blocks, and our locomotion stiffened.

Why elevated heels developed in the first place is worth a whole discussion in itself (They prevented riders’ feet from slipping? They made us taller? It was fashion? It prevented nobles from stepping in horse feces? Etc.) Bu we’ll leave shoe history here.

The fact is that shoes created many different problems, and running shoe manufacturers have pretty quickly realized this. But instead of going back to the starting point, they simply decided that running shoes had to be as bouncy, rigid and supportive as possible. Improvised solutions appeared and improvisation fits marketing perfectly.

Part II: Marketing Technology