Saucony is stepping into the race to build the most environmentally friendly athletic shoe.
It’s shaping up to be quite a competition, folks. Reebok is rolling out a largely plant-based shoe, New Balance sells one made from factory scraps, and Puma has incorporated recycled plastic bottles into one of its lines.
Saucony wants to muscle out those Boston-area rivals, judging from its high-profile approach to this launch: The Waltham company has taken out a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl on Sunday to disclose the development of its biodegradable line, in which the shoes would be made entirely from natural products. The ad will run on Fox’s streaming services, not on the traditional broadcast. So Saucony will end up paying less than the $5 million or so Fox is reportedly getting for the TV ads.
Saucony’s chief marketing officer, Don Lane, said the ad represents the kickoff of the most extensive campaign in the brand’s 122-year history. The Super Bowl ad, he said, offers the biggest audience the company has ever had.
And it represents the power of going local. Lane worked with the Boston ad agency Arnold Worldwide and local effects company Brickyard VFX to craft the commercial at Olympics-level speed: roughly one month from conception to completion. Could Saucony have pulled it off by working with a company from New York or California? Maybe. But it probably would have been tougher.
Forget, for a moment, about carbon plates and Pebax foam. This may be the hottest topic among running shoe designers: how to reduce their environmental footprints. The reason? From Lane’s perspective, the core market for Saucony includes runners who consider themselves to be early adopters, and environmentally conscious. Lane said the sustainability message should resonate with them and enable Saucony to stand out from the pack.
The spot, shot in an Allston studio, depicts shoes in a warehouse floating upward, as if to heaven. A female voice intones: “What if the shoes we threw away actually went away? At Saucony, we’re developing our first biodegradable shoe. It’s one small step towards reducing our footprint for good.”
Never mind that Saucony’s first biodegradable shoe won’t be available until the end of the year, at the earliest, or that it will be a casual sneaker in its Originals line, not a performance running shoe. Lane said about 20 percent of Saucony’s sales come from casual shoes, the rest from running. Saucony is also planning a biodegradable performance shoe, but that will take more time. The goal is to use natural materials such as cotton, wool, and plant-based rubber, and not plastics or other petroleum products. The exact blend for the first biodegradable shoe is still being finalized.
It’s a bold move. The company clearly wants to take the lead in the industry’s race for sustainability, under the leadership of president Anne Cavassa and corporate owner Wolverine World Wide. (Wolverine employs 75 people at the Saucony offices in Waltham, as well as others who work for the Sperry and Keds brands.)
Whether shoes made from plants are better for the environment remains to be seen. Skeptics include University of Oregon chemistry professor David Tyler, who notes that plant-based materials frequently require more energy to process, and the use of more land and more water than petroleum-based components. Only a life-cycle assessment can answer that crucial question.
Lane said Saucony has embarked on such an assessment, working through a trade group called the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Lane wanted to get the ad done now to take advantage of the millions of viewers who may see it on Sunday, to make a big statement that builds awareness of Saucony’s “Run for Good” message. It’s the starting line: Saucony plans to communicate its commitment to sustainability in a variety of ways, throughout the year.
Sustainability is one trend that Saucony is pushing. Lane hopes to help reignite another: Boston brands working with Boston ad agencies. That used to be par for the course for the marketing business in town. But geography has faded as a factor during the past two decades as corporate marketing officials picked outside agencies. Lane, a former Arnold executive who left there in 2016, wants to bring it back.
Lane said the close proximity of the principals involved in this commercial helped ensure the ad’s swift turnaround. This marked the first time Saucony used a local ad agency in two years. But if Lane has his way, it won’t be the last. Maybe it’s another race in which Saucony can aim to run with the leaders.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.