How Adidas is trying to shake off hiking’s ‘stale’ image

From scaling Kilimanjaro to making a fashion statement in East London, the sportswear giant is moving into hiking with the hope of eliminating the stigma attached to the outdoor sport while appealing to a new generation of consumers.

Adidas is making a big investment in hiking with the launch of a new boot, as it looks to shake up the sector and make it “fit for today’s consumers”.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Adidas’s global VP of marketing and digital commerce Stephen Dowling says the sportswear giant’s ‘Free Hiker’ shoe champions its heritage and reputation as a trendy and stylish brand while also focusing on performance. He compares that to the perception of hiking gear more generally, which while highly functional isn’t particularly fashionable.

“What we bring is a perfect combination of performance and style. The industry of outdoor wear has suffered from a perception of staleness and oldness,” he says.

“We combine the best of everything. We might not create something for the top of Everest but we’re pretty close, and you can still wear it in the street.”

Think ‘hiking’ and most people’s minds would wander to images of heavy brown boots, baggy trousers and unflattering fleeces. That is why Adidas is focused on reaching a new generation of consumers who might be under the assumption hiking is for ramblers.

Outdoor wear has suffered from a perception of staleness and oldness… We combine the best of everything. We might not create something for the top of Everest but we’re pretty close, and you can wear it in the street.

Stephen Dowling, Adidas

When it comes to creating a suitable boot, Dowling believes it’s vital Adidas strikes a balance between producing something consumers will love aesthetically and something that will withstand tough terrain.

He believes the Free Hiker can “live from the mountain to the streets” and claims it can endure about 1,500kms of trekking before a replacement is needed. That is almost twice the distance of most shoes on the market, he claims, which tend to last for about 800kms.

“We’re being true to Adidas and Adidas Outdoor in this line because if we just create an overly styled product that lets someone down in the toughest terrain, we’re not staying true to being the greatest sport brand in the world,” explains Dowling.

“Or we could create an ultra-technical shoe that looks like something my great grandfather in Dublin would have worn, but then again that’s not really Adidas. Adding uncompromised performance and style while overlaying that with our purpose that sport has the power to change lives is sweet-spot Adidas and sweet-spot consumer.”

‘Dirty fingernails’ leadership

The Free Hiker boot was borne from a hike some of Dowling’s design team completed along the Pacific Coast Trail in the US – a gruelling trek that can take five to six months to complete in total. Speaking to others on the trail, they discovered hikers were wearing heavy old-school boots despite the fact they didn’t feel comfortable wearing them.

“After a week [people on the trail] are like, ‘this just isn’t sustainable and it’s also not me, it’s not who I am’. We created the Free Hiker to be the best performance hiking shoe on the market, but one that you could wear daily on the street and bring that energy to urban environments,” explains Dowling.

They then worked with a dedicated tester who completed five months on the Pacific Coast trail with a near finished prototype of the shoe.

He adds: “We like to talk about dirty fingernails leadership and startup mentality, which is why we had our team hike the Pacific Trail to experience it for themselves.”

Adidas Free Hiker
Adidas’ Free Hiker is water repellent, features a continental rubber sole and boost technology.

Despite Adidas’s size and scale, launching into a new sub-category isn’t easy. Dowling admits it has been hard to get the balance right between investing in performance but not going too far, while making the shoes stylish without chasing a trend.

“The challenge is ensuring we offer uncompromised performance. A lot of brands might chase a trend and a trend, for example, could be a certain style. The easiest thing to do might be to chase that style and forgo a bit of investment, insight or energy on performance,” he says. “We will absolutely not do that.

“Is that always easy? Sometimes not. But it’s the right thing to do because trends come and go but consumers will buy into brands that are part of the solution not the problem and aren’t fickle in chasing a short-term trend. We believe the free hiker should be here for the next 50 years, we are not just capturing the next five seasons.”

Launching the new hiking boot

To create some noise around the new boot – due to officially launch tomorrow (22 February) – a few retailers have been offering a small batch of the Free Hiker. The Pacific Trail hike was also part of the research for a marketing campaign that aims to portray hiking as realistically as possible.

“We’ve been seeding this product for four months now. There’s no point creating a campaign if you haven’t lived in the trenches with the consumer,” explains Dowling.

The marketing campaign, ‘Escape the Noise’, was created alongside All Conditions Media. It is designed to not only promote the shoe but hiking in general, drawing on the importance of mindfulness and taking time out from busy schedules.

“It all comes to a head with Escape the Noise, which is our consumer-facing launch where we will tell the world that we realise the pressures of city living, we understand the daily environmental worries you have,” Dowling says.

“We want to help [consumers] but we don’t want to help them in a talk-down way. We want to look them in the eye and say, ‘hey whatever you’re facing in life, if you want to escape the noise, we’re here to support you’.”

The Adidas Free Hiker in action.

The campaign, which will run across Adidas’s social and digital channels, tells the story of world-renowned DJ, Diplo, whose job involves working through the night, often into the early hours of the morning.

“When we look at people in the cities, they’re always ‘on’ and are generally craving an outlet to recharge and become a better version of themselves. Diplo is a great example of that. This guy DJs around the word until 6:30am and is on such a high leaving the concerts that when he finishes he goes for a hike to bring himself back to a place of normality,” Dowling says.

“I’m sure it happens all around the world, for many people, their outlet is hiking too. But it might not be the kind of hiking you think about. Yes there are people who hike the Alps, but in the Hollywood Hills you’ll find people hiking and in Richmond Park people go for a short hike. Really, it’s every day.”

We’ve been seeding this product for four months now.  There’s no point creating a campaign if you haven’t lived in the trenches with the consumer.

Stephen Dowling, Adidas

As well as Diplo, Adidas is working with a number of influencers for the launch. There have been concerns around influencer marketing, specifically about issues such as follower fraud and authenticity. But Dowling says Adidas is clear that influencers must really be influencing in a specific category, adding that authenticity is a “non-negotiable”.

“To be really honest, we’ve turned down influencers for this campaign because of their lack of authenticity. They may be killing it in terms of views and engagement and social profile but I have a one-year-old daughter and when she turns 18 she will look behind the brand,” he says.

“There’s such transparency with technology that if you’re not living your ethos, they’ll forget about you or get rid of you.”

So what will success for this campaign look like. Dowling says there are two key markets it wants to reach.

“Success is seeing the Free Hiker in Soho, London, in Shanghai and in Manhattan but also seeing it when holidaying in the Alps or if you’re climbing Kilimanjaro. It lives in both worlds,” he concludes.