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361˚ USA Prepares To Enter U.S. Running Shoe Biz

361˚ USA is a subsidiary of China's second-largest footwear brand.

The first two shoes 361˚ USA plans to launch are the lightweight, low-profile  Chromoso ($90, top left) and the  361-Sensation cushioned stability model ($120).
The first two shoes 361˚ USA plans to launch are the lightweight, low-profile Chromoso ($90, top left) and the 361-Sensation cushioned stability model ($120).

361˚ USA is a subsidiary of China’s second-largest footwear brand.

A new running shoe brand 361˚ USA—a subsidiary of the second-largest footwear brand in China—is entering the U.S. market this fall with two new shoes. If you think the U.S. running shoe market is already pretty saturated, consider that 361˚ USA isn’t just another fledgling startup brand. The company not only has the power of a massive brand from China, its management staff has vast experience in the U.S. market—including several execs who formerly worked at ASICS just down the road from its office in Irvine, Calif. Giving it even more momentum, it was announced Monday that the parent company—361 Degrees International—has signed a sponsorship agreement to be an official sponsor of the 2016 Olympics and Paralympic Games. Under that agreement, the brand will supply apparel, footwear and accessories to thousands of Olympic officials, volunteers and torchbearers. In other words, the brand is about to become much more visible on a worldwide basis.

The first U.S.-specific shoe—a lightweight, low-profile model called the Chromoso ($90, 19mm heel, 9mm forefoot, 9.4 oz. men’s size 9)—launches this week, while a mild stability shoe called the 361-Sensation ($120, 21mm heel, 12mm forefoot, 11.0 oz. men’s size 9) will debut at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon and ½ Marathon expo on Nov. 14. The shoes built for the U.S. are being planned with U.S. input and being designed in Taiwan and manufactured in Vietnam. We recently caught up with 361˚ USA president Jim Monahan, formerly the vice president of footwear for ASICS America, to talk about the new brand and how it plans to enter the U.S. running market.

What’s going to allow 361˚ USA to make an impact in the U.S.?

First, the headquarters has recognized that the overseas business is a drastically different animal than the business in China. But they’ve also created an entirely separate product engine, which I think is an important point to note. The U.S. office is a subsidiary, it’s not just a distributor that is going to try to come in and sell some of the Chinese product into the U.S. market. Products will be designed specifically for this market. Second, some people will view it as a new company, but it’s really not. We’ll obviously be new to a lot of people in the U.S., but it’s not a new company, and what’s nice about that is that it puts us in a very well-funded position.

What are some of the challenges of entering the U.S. market?

It doesn’t matter if you’re coming into the U.S. or going into Europe or going into Brazil or China or Japan. Each market has its own way of doing business and a lot of it is the differences that occur at retail and within the sell-in process. One of the things that we feel is important is that we have a local team here in the U.S. that has expertise in understanding the retail dynamic, first and foremost, but also in understanding the consumer dynamic and flow. We have the contacts and have our hand on the pulse of what’s happening in retail and on the consumer front. The bottom line is that you’ve got to get your product to the consumer.

What indications do you have that you’ll be successful?

We’ve done a lot of preliminary fit-testing already in the U.S. We’ve hit specialty retail pretty well in Southern California. The people who have had the product on their feet have been interested in where they can purchase it. That’s one of the most important things to hear from a consumer—when you get that product on their feet and it fits and feels good.

Running specialty prides itself on being different—they need to be different—and I think consumers within the stores have told them that they’re willing to try new brands. I think the key is that when they try that new brand that the brand needs to deliver on the promise that they’re making. You’ve heard me say over and over, consistency isn’t real sexy, but whether you’re a brand on either end of the minimalism/maximalism spectrum or whatever it may be, your message needs to be consistent and your product needs to be consistent. The team that is here, including our manufacturing team in Taiwan, they understand that very well.

Will 361˚ USA be independent and solely focused on running?

We have our own product creation engine. We have our own initiatives. We have our own sourcing. We have our own product marketing teams within various regions that will drive the direction of our brand, which is centered in and around training and running. It’s a very large organization, but the overseas division here in the U.S. is very focused on running and training. Basketball will be a smaller part of our direction as we move forward, but overall it’s a fitness brand that obviously has a lifestyle element to it as well. The group of individuals that make up 361˚USA all come from backgrounds that include performance-oriented brands. We want to be a performance leader in the U.S. We’re going to target the largest segment of the running market, and those are runners who need protection. We’ll be about providing shock attenuation or cushioning, but still providing responsiveness. I think that’s something that is getting lost in the trend of super-soft shoes of the last several years.

How has the running business changed in recent years?

The running market has never been more competitive. It continues to get more competitive. There’s been a lot of beliefs presented to the running consumer over the last three or four years. There have been a lot of mixed messages. There have been some messages that people thought were gospel that have now been proven incorrect and proven wrong. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to get a consumer into a shoe that fits right and works for them and keeps them healthy over the long haul. Part of that is the ability to provide a collection some diversity that allows a runner to mix up the product that they can train in. The message doesn’t need to be complex. Each person is a study of one. There is no magic bullet. The consumers need to continually search out what works for them. We obviously believe we provide a multitude of solutions for them.

Your first shoe, the Chromoso, launches soon. What’s next after that?

After the Chromoso, we’ll launch the 361-Sensation in Las Vegas in November at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon expo, which will be the grassroots event we do. That’s the shoe we’ve been getting into consumers on a limited basis around Southern California. As we roll in 2015, we’ll have a neutral shoe in fall 2015. And in late 2015 going into early 2016, we’ll have a lighter weight product and then a trail shoe. We’ll add more in the neutral and stability categories too. What we all learned from the minimalism movement is that protection is still a very, very important part of the running formula.

What’s different about your shoes?

We’ll tell our story around what we call the 361 Protection Scale. It’s not going to be centered on talking about neutral or stability. Yes, that’s part of a gait analysis. At the end of the day, we’re going to talk at varying degrees about protection and responsiveness. Obviously there is this very strong trend toward cushioning and maximalism. It’s all about cushioning and soft platforms. I think what we will hang our hat on is trying to find a balance of providing a great degree of cushioning without losing responsiveness. There is always some type of reaction. It was minimalism for a while, then it swung back to ultra-protection. But the question is how much are you losing on the responsive side. That’s sort of the next frontier.

Where you do you see the running shoe industry going in the U.S.?

I think we’ll continue to see some growth and see more and more brands coming into the business. I still think a lot of excitement in and around that space, with new brands talking about how their products are different. It is certainly an industry that seems to be trending toward being less complex from a construction standpoint. If there was one great thing that came out of minimalism, it’s that product can be simpler in its construction. I think you’ll continue to see that. I think the traditional running space will continue to be challenged a bit with what’s happening in the diversity of events that are out there—like some of the Spartan Racing and other types of adventure races. Will those type of consumers stay in running shoes? Or will they be in more of a training shoe? It’s definitely something we need to consider because those events will continue to grow, especially among the younger audience. Up to now, a lot of them are still using running shoes. But will that continue moving forward? I don’t know. That’s the million dollar question.

Will 361˚ USA sponsor American athletes?

I think we will, but that’s not our focus initially. Having a sponsored athlete doesn’t always legitimize what you’re doing. I think having everyday athletes in your brand is as much of a validation as a sponsored athlete. Our first point of concentration is going to be focused on the general consumer that’s looking for a great pair of shoes. That’s not to say we won’t have sponsored athletes somewhere down the road.