Mizuno since 2010: Growing a brand and community (part 2)




To begin his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell wrote of the mystery of Roseto, a small Italian town to the south of Rome.  In the late 1890s, a small group Rosetans immigrated to the US and settled in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Over the next few decades hundreds more Rosetans moved to Bangor leaving the streets of Roseta virtually empty.  They built a community of friends and extended family and thrived as a tight-knit, supportive community which fostered cooperation and happiness.

This town might have remained unnoticed if it hadn’t been for Stewart Wolf, a young physician who traveled to the area to give a lecture to a local medical association.  After his talk, over beers with fellow physicians, he was told the story of the Bangor Rosetans.  They seemed just like every other small immigrant community in the US, except for the fact, one doctor noted, that virtually none of the Rostans in Bangor under 65 had heart disease.  Wolf was intrigued.  It was the 950s, writes Gladwell, and heart disease was on the rise in middle-aged Americans.  What was their secret?

Months of study revealed that there was nothing different about their genetics, their diets, or their work habits.  Nothing set them apart in terms of a strictly medical definition of health.  But one ting made their group an “outlier” from the rest of American society: community.  Their community was close, supportive, and extended.  Three generations of families nearby, neighbors and friends stopping along the street to chat and share.  They had good health because they had community.

Runners have their own tight-knit community of local and distant friends.  We rely on feedback, support, and encouragement from those who share our passion.  Runners get runners.  We don’t tell each other we are too thin or running too much.  We don’t give crazy looks when our fellow runners take off on 50 mile quests or run in torrential downpours.  We are our own support network.  Seeking to tape into that community, Mizuno decided to depart rom conventional running ad campaigns of millions of dollars (which they didn’t have to begin with). They had to find a creative way of brand growth and runner awareness of what Mizuno had to offer.

With a meager budget of $1.5 million–hardly enough to challenge any of the giants or lesser giants of the running shoe industry, and just 1% of total spending by all brands in the category in 2011-2012– Mizuno embarked on a rather ambitious, if not altogether risky, promotional strategy.  They split their marketing budget: half for traditional advertising through print and digital media, and half for product giveaways to members of a new community they created to be populated by “running influencers.”

In 2011, Mizuno compiled a list of 600 running influencers, sent them invitations to join their new  community, and gave that group invitations to give to their fellow runners and blog readers.  It was a shrewd use of social media and free advertising.  And so began the Mezamashii Project that swelled to 40,000 runners and earned Mizuno an award for effective marketing from the EFFIE effectiveness index in 2013.

A select group of "running influencers" were chosen to be members of the Mezamashii Project and received messages like this one (not mine--more on that later)
A select group of “running influencers” were chosen to be members of the Mezamashii Project and received messages like this one (not mine–more on that later)

The Mezamashii Project—the Japanese word for “brilliant”—sparked a new community of Mizuno devotees built organically from this series of invitations sent to the running influencers.  I will note that I applied for Mezamashii membership more than a half-dozen times, every time I got an email from Mizuno asking me to “join” and never received a response negative or positive—this remains a source of confusion for me.  Was this a breakdown in the process–not my not being selected, but repeated emails inviting someone who had applied many times before?  And it comprises a serious flaw of an “organic” strategy–the risk of alienating or offending those you’ve invited to “apply” by ignoring their applications.

For me the Mezamashii Project struck a positive nerve in that running had transformed my health and  my outlook on life itself.  In some ways every run for me was a “brilliant run” and I wanted to share that and become a part of it.  The design of their promotional strategy was quite smart in that with no possibility of matching the giants’ ad budgets, Mizuno tried to capture the passion of runners and as a hopeful result, their loyalty and their money.  Fritz Taylor, then Mizuno’s Running division  general manager and vice president, admitted that to see growth, Mizuno had not the means to follow  larger brands down the traditional marketing path.  They had to disrupt the old model.

In researching this piece, I learned something I had not known about running shoe brand loyalty:

  • 50% of running shoe shops have  brand in mind when they enter the store
  • 85% of that group buy the brand they had in mind
  • for “running junkies” those numbers are 75% with brand in mind; 90% buy that brand

Interesting  that predisposition toward a brand/need among serious runners is higher than I thought, but not surprising if you think about it.  I was in Brooks for years because they worked.  Runners are a superstitious lot.  We don’t mess with what works.  And when we do, it often turns out badly for us, which only strengthens the superstition.  In the middle of a marathon training cycle a couple of years ago, I decided to try some Sauconys.  I did a long run in the them and felt horrible, they were too spongy, my legs felt wobbly, and the run was not a memorable experience.  The shoes went back to the store, and the next week I was back in Brooks.

I ran my first marathon in Mizuno Wave Renegades (I was a much heavier runner at the time) but changed to Brooks after the race because the Renegades had a seam that rubbed blisters on the top of my foot.  One small change can kill loyalty to a brand.  It takes a bad experience in a shoe to change a runner’s predisposition toward a brand; or the prospect of a positive development in either runner health, endurance, or speed.  Or, in Mizuno’s plan, the potential of a transformative experience with the Mizuno logo on your shoe.  If you can’t out-spend the giant shoe brands, then out-inspire them.

One of the most powerful and effective advertising strategies is word of mouth.  WOM campaigns are hard to start, and require a loyal and vocal group of brand devotees.  The Mezamashii Project created a community of Mizuno evangelists who blogged about the brand, product tested the free shoes they received, and fostered interest in the brand.  The marketing firm advising Mizuno, McKinney, had a core strategy of making non-Mizuno wearers wonder if they were missing something by not running in  Mizuno shoes.

Inside the community, Mizuno kept loyalists alive by adding to the perks.  While only a core group of “founding” members received free shoes, many were given the opportunity to provide feedback on colorways for new models or invite new members to the project, and all involved were given the chance to win a pair of shoes in a giveaway publicized by Mezamashii members.

What I like about this strategy is that Mizuno did not cater exclusively to elite runners or major bloggers.  It reached out to mid- and back-of-the-pack runners.  It reached out to those of us who started running late in life, some for fun, some for health reasons.  It showed that a shoe company could value runners of all levels.  We have a story to tell, too.  By giving these runners a chance to tell that story, and to do it while running in Mizuno, the company created a devoted group of brand evangelists that was not only effective, but didn’t break an already minimal budget.

It was not without flaws.  Mezamashii is a bulky word.  In writing this piece I’ve misspelled it each time I wrote it.  I’ve had to check spelling each time.  I get the mystique around it, but wonder how many other people misspelled it and mispronounced it.  To be sure, Mezamashii doesn’t roll off the lips like “Just Do It” or “Run Happy” or “Find Your Strong.”  After a while, the project lost steam and focus.  A month ago, I called Mizuno customer service to see if it still was in operation and was told they were “transitioning” to a different focus.

Nevertheless, the early results of the project were pretty impressive.  In the first few weeks, the Mezamashii Project rollout:

  • Engaged 19,504 Mizuno runners and Mezamashii Run Project members
  • Saw 100,000 new unique visitors to mizunorunning.com, an increase of 52%
  • Garnered  155,859 visits to the Mezamashii Project home page through paid and earned media
  • Gained 25% more Twitter followers

In this respect, Mezamasshii translated into advertising brilliance for Mizuno.  They successfully disrupted the model and found success in WoM and social media promotions.


Next: Mizuno shifts from Brilliant running to running for the world


[Note: A great deal of the content for the next post is presented originally in a June 25, 2013 piece published on warc.com authored by Geoffrey Precourt. I want to give full credit for the original research on this.  I am summarizing his writings on Mizuno, while adding mown comments throughout. Some of the data I quote also comes from this case study.]


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