How fitting that a shoe and apparel company that used to brag it was “Endorsed By No One” now boasts Kawhi Leonard as its leading man in its reentry into the basketball shoe market.
A man of words so few that his first New Balance commercial featured him saying nothing beyond bringing a finger to his lips and blowing a silent “shhhh,” Leonard is the unspoken face of the Boston-based company’s highly ambitious sports endorsement strategy.
That strategy has given New Balance something to shout about.
The signing of Leonard — even before he was named NBA Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors last June and subsequently signed with the Los Angeles Clippers — sits at the apex of the company’s remarkable string of successes in 2019 in the ultra-competitive marketplace of not only basketball but also soccer, tennis, and track and field shoes and apparel.
Besides Leonard, New Balance watched its apparel deal with Liverpool Football Club pay off with a Champions League victory; it saw Coco Gauff emerge as the most stunning young talent in tennis; it witnessed Rose Lavelle of the US women’s soccer team play a key role in the World Cup title run; and most recently it watched Jose Altuve send the Astros to the World Series with a walkoff home run to defeat the Yankees in the ALCS.
For the 113-year-old company, this was the equivalent of drawing blackjack, putting together a straight flush in poker, and hitting the jackpot at a slot machine in a single stroll through a casino. All that winning has fueled the company’s faith that its long-planned strategy to become a major player in sports and apparel — especially in basketball and especially in China — is on a true course.
Catching up to industry leaders Nike and Adidas is not a realistic goal. But winning the battle for third place among the likes of Puma and Under Armour and Skechers and Fila and Reebok is very much the aim.
“I don’t think that we’ve moved away from that notion of ‘endorsed by no one’ — we’ve actually amplified it,” said Ray Hilvert, New Balance vice president of global sports marketing and team sports, in a recent interview at the company’s Brighton headquarters. “We’ve had now some great sponsors that have helped us take our product to the next level in every sport that we work in, and Kawhi is certainly one of those.”
Choosing the enigmatic Leonard as the low-key keynote speaker for its basketball brand after abandoning that space since the 1980s came after New Balance took a long look at the global sport of basketball.
“We spent multiple years building a strategy for how we would do this in the right way, in a different way, because we need basketball to be a global sports brand,” said Patrick Cassidy, who as global director of consumer marketing and athlete activation was instrumental in signing Leonard. “It’s a driver of global style in the lifestyle business as well as performance, and it’s validation.”
Matt Powell, a senior industry analyst for sports at NPD, a global market research firm, said that while sales of basketball performance shoes has been in decline the last several years, he is curious to see how New Balance does with its pivot from being “endorsed by no one.”
“The consumer expects there will be endorsers and influencers to sell a brand, and this move is probably the right one — the Kawhi Leonard one was like catching lightning in a bottle,” said Powell.
“It will be interesting to see how they roll the product out. New Balance had a very good year last year; they grew faster than the market. This year they’re not growing as fast but they’re still a successful story.”
New Balance began to look for independent-minded players who were interested in a “partnership,” which is its preferred nomenclature for endorsement or corporate sponsorship deals. Standout performers with an independent streak, an interest in lifestyle marketing, and a social media presence fit the New Balance profile best, Cassidy said.
The first basketball signing was Darius Bazley, now a 19-year-old rookie with the Oklahoma City Thunder who worked as a New Balance intern the first quarter of this year. Talks with Leonard, a former Nike client, intensified around the same time, and Leonard began wearing New Balance shoes at the NBA All-Star Game in February.
Leonard’s complete lack of engagement on social media was not a disqualifier.
“If he’s not highly engaged in social media, there better be a bunch of other things he over-indexes on,” said Cassidy. “We felt that he totally did in so many ways.
“He bought into what we were doing. He’s very creative. Just because he doesn’t have Instagram doesn’t mean he isn’t a super-creative guy, which he is. He’s very hands-on and engaged in the product, footwear and apparel. He’s got very strong ideas and we work with that.
“If you don’t change who he is, you work with him to bring that out in the right way because people don’t know him and they’re hungry to understand anything about him because he’s such an enigma.”
Leonard made everyone’s job easier when he casually let slip that he’s “a fun guy,” after which he also let loose his rather strange but unforgettable laugh. The cackle and the “fun guy” moniker became instant memes. New Balance “Fun Guy” t-shirts are readily available, and Wednesday marks a more serious turn with the widespread release of Leonard’s OMN1S shoe.
“He recognized what was happening in social media,” said Cassidy, “and he recognized why it was funny and to his credit worked with us to lean into that, and let that out as his personality, as a wink and a sign-off for what this is. He’s in on the joke.”
When Leonard took control in Toronto’s playoff run over the Magic, 76ers, Bucks, and then Warriors, it helped turn New Balance headquarters on Guest Street into a hotbed of Raptors fans this summer.
“It was massive, without a doubt one of the biggest moments for this global brand, which is saying a lot because New Balance has been a brand since 1906,” said Cassidy. “This was a truly global moment around an enigmatic star that was debuting our shoes for the first time.
“He and New Balance translate not only in North America but also China and everywhere in between.”
Even surrealist painter Salvador Dali would struggle to depict a world in which Leonard decided to weigh in on a geopolitical matter such as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeting about protests in Hong Kong, followed by LeBron James’s commentary. That should translate into one potential minefield to be dodged for New Balance, which continues to press to maximize its market in basketball-crazed China, where the company says it has 3,000 stores.
Liverpool soccer uniforms are an important part of the new New Balance equation as well. Even though the company has deals with other European teams, none of them have the visibility of Liverpool, although an extension of that deal is in considerable doubt because of New Balance’s ongoing court battle to keep Liverpool from switching to Nike.
Still, the scores the company made with Lavelle and especially the 15-year-old Gauff — who burst on the scene during Wimbledon and just won her first WTA title — confirm that New Balance’s run of excellence was guided by some luck but plenty of design.
New Balance’s “Call Me Coco” ad campaign exemplified its intent to let its athletes tell their own stories. The company signed Gauff before her meteoric rise.
“New Balance came to us and said, ‘Look, hear us out, we may not be the biggest player in the business but we don’t have too many players, we are willing to take a long-term approach, we are willing to invest in her,’ ” said Gauff’s agent, Tony Godsick.
“I think the timing for their success has been great. Obviously Kawhi’s been unbelievable, there’s Liverpool and Coco.
“They deserved ; they were willing to invest in all these things, and if you’re willing to play with the big boys, which they are, if you’re really willing to play, which they did, you’re going to see results. And they saw significant results.”