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How Hoka Went from Obscure to Viral

What would you call a product that was born out of a need for a minuscule and elite market to run downhill faster, looks like a running shoe made for the iconic “Michelin Man”, is painted in multi-bright colors that earned it the nickname “Clown shoe,” and whose name was virtually mispronounced by everyone? Oh, and by the way, it just surpassed a viral $1.3 billion in sales.

It is a story that emerged way back in the first decade of the new millennia by a couple of French mountain runners, Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard, who were seeking a solution aimed at solving the challenge of running downhill quicker and less painfully. Apparently, running a decline faster while maintaining control and balance and avoiding physical injury can be more difficult than running uphill or level. At first, it seemed that a solution would only solve a problem for the most elite of those who spend the majority of their lives sprinting across mostly rough and unimproved terrain.

Even its orignally chosen name, Hoka One One (Pronounced ho-kuh o-nay o-nay], comes from a rather remote New Zealand indigenous population known as Māor. The name, which was shortened in 2021 to simply “Hoka,” loosely translates as “fly over the earth.”

So how did an ugly shoe, with its origin from the other side of the world, named after an ancient tribe with an obscure language, become a big marketing success around the globe?

In a subindustry like elite physical fitness, it’s not uncommon that product success originates in a narrowly defined and targeted consumer space, but Hoka’s rise to the rare $1 billion sales arena is anything but common. Generally, most competing companies attempt to expand the potential marketplace by making significant changes to the product’s original design and function to attract the attention of less discerning consumers and, through the process, lose their brand’s distinctive reputations. Experienced marketers know that diverting away from the fundamental aspects of a product’s success and trying to be something you’re not may turn out very bad for a brand in a competitive marketplace. Scaling a very distinctive product can be precarious.

Bought by Decker in 2014 for a bargain $1.2 million, CEO Dave Powers set out a marketing strategy in 2022 to advance the ugly shoes’ space in a broader marketplace without deviating too far from the product’s original design features. “I don’t mind the ugly moniker…it basically says you’re different. You’re owning something distinct,” said Powers.

Hoka’s rise to stardom began with increased distribution into sporting goods stores, department stores, and brick and mortar spaces. Hoka has a “strong” presence in REI stores, and a modest placement in a relatively few Foot Locker locations and is expected to be more available in Dick’s Sporting Goods stores in 2023. The company is expanding its e-commerce affiliate programs that will offer the entire line of balanced and cushioned products through its affiliate partners. The brand is showing up in huge numbers in fitness centers around the globe.

Hoka’s marketing strategy leans heavily on omnichannel digital marketing tactics and embraces an aggressive plan to employ a broad range of professional athletes as influencers. “We wanted to sign some elite track athletes as a demonstration that this isn’t just for old broken runners and ultramarathoners.” From the beginning, Decker accelerated the use of running event sponsorships, including the 2012 Olympics, to get more notice from a wider athletic spectrum.

Current product aesthetics remain mostly unchanged and connected with its original designs to remain true to its origins. Some less colorful options were added to make its appearance less dramatic to fashion-conscious consumers. The original ultra-fat, balloon-like soles now come in a less ultra-fat version. Hoka continues to develop more responsive and durable cushion that protects the wearer without compromising performance.

Decker reported net sales in the third quarter of 2023 of $1.346 billion, an increase of 13.3 percent compared to the same quarter last year. The Hoka brand exhibited an exceptional growth rate of 27.4 percent in the first quarter of fiscal 2024, proving that when a brand stays close to its promise, performance can soar to great heights.