Your 57 year old Uncle has a pair, your roommate who runs 13 miles on Sunday’s has a pair, and the mushroom taking fashionista that lives in the condo next door certainly has a pair. 

Today’s brand is an anomaly.

The brand is well known, but the come-up story isn’t. 

A flawless decade-long push of the boundaries of footwear, a niche focus, and brand that has escaped the Marketing rat race of DTC, Hoka went from a $1M valuation to doing $1B in revenue 10 years later.

Taking over footwear, carving a legitimate seat at the table with Nike and Adidas, Hoka is a case study for all Marketers to learn from.

Let’s get runnin’…

Founded in 2009 by 2 former Salomon employees, Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard, the concept for Hoka was born out of their passion for intense trail running.

(You couldn’t pay me any amount to do “intense trail running”, I’ll stick to tennis LOL.)

While other running shoes were focused on keeping their shoes hyper lightweight, the partners wanted to create a more durable shoe with extensive cushioning and protection for longer runs on trails. With backgrounds in engineering and biomechanics, Nicolas and Jean-Luc worked to put together their first prototype.

(Nicolas (left) and Jean-Luc (middle) pictured below.)

The first shoe featured an oversized midsole, a unique meta-rocker geometry (not me acting like I know what that is) to encourage a smooth stride, and lightweight materials to keep the overall weight of the shoe in check.

The partners presented the initial prototype at a tradeshow where they met an interesting character to the story, Mark Plaatjes. 

Co-founder of Boulder Running Company and 1993 world marathon champion Mark was an icon in the very space Nicolas and Jean-Luc looked to tap into. At this tradeshow Mark was completely blown away by the prototype called Hoka. 

So much so that he ordered 770 pairs ON THE SPOT to sell at his retail store in Boulder.

Nicolas and Jean-Luc had only made prototypes until that point, but this initial demand from Mark was all they needed to convince them to produce the shoes at a higher quantity.

Here’s a pic of the ORIGINAL prototype. 👇

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Doubling down on their niche focus on ultra-marathon runners, Hoka poached ultra-runner Karl Meltzer from La Sportiva and inked an exclusive deal where Karl would only compete in Hokas.

For context, Karl is the Michael Jordan of ultra running, winning more 100-mile ultramarathons than every other runner, so this was a big deal for Hokas to cement themselves in the niche they were targeting.

Within 3 years Hoka had become the go-to footwear for ultra runners. Their unique hybrid of lightweight materials that other shoes offered paired with the substantial amount of cushion separated them from the competition.

Karl repping Hoka. 👇

The typical DTC brand will spend 25-30% of their revenue on Marketing to fuel sales, which is a ton. It’s difficult to sustain, and the minute you pull Marketing spend to optimize for profits, top of line sales plummet.

To maintain your trajectory even when you pull Marketing spend, you need a BRAND that is so meaningful to customers that it will outlast your Marketing spend.

Hoka has just that, and that’s when athletic shoes company Deckers, saw the promise of the brand and acquired Hoka with the goal to introduce the brand to markets bigger than just the niche ultra marathon running industry with which they already were dominating.

(Deckers full suite of brands includes the iconic UGG and Sanuk.)

The clunky soles, bright colors, and big logo slapped on the sides, Hoka’s shoes go head first against the minimalist trend that has captivated nearly every consumer market since 2010. 

Abercrombie’s revival is all thanks to a minimalist approach, no more logos, no more bold color combinations. And brands like Alo and Lulu Lemon continue to  dominate thanks to a minimalist approach, heavy focus on black and white, no logos, and tight fitting clothes.

But Hoka isn’t taking on Abercrombie and Lulu Lemon, they’re taking on an industry with as many brands at the starting line as any other.

Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, New Balance, On Cloud, Asics, Reebok, Puma, Converse, Vans. I think you get the point. The industry is CROWDED.

On top of that, Nike and Adidas are two of the most notable brands on the planet, to take them head on, would not be smart for Hoka.

Brands like Reebok and Under Armour have attempted to take on the giants, they saw an initial stream of success but now both businesses have plateaued. 

You can go at the kings, but you best not miss.

Instead, Hoka is leaning on what makes them different and they’ve built a cult following, which isn’t easy to do.

In order to build that cult following, your brand has to exist outside the norms of culture to appeal to those who feel alienated by the current norms.

These alienated groups are a big opportunity for brands looking to build a cult-like following. These consumers feel different from everyone else, they don’t fit in, there’s no product that understands them. When consumers don’t feel seen by the Nike and Adidas of the world, Hoka fills the gap.

It’s the same playbook that Liquid Death ran with. The stigma of going out with your friends to a bar and you’re the only one not drinking. What are you going to do, get a plastic Aquafina water bottle? Whether you like it or not there’s social pressure that comes with being in a situation like that. And it’s uncomfortable.

Liquid Death saw there was a crowd of people who didn’t drink, knew that societal pressure all too well, and felt like no brand understood them. So they made it kickass to drink water at a bar. That’s why their following is so tight knit.

Now back to shoes…

Everyone has Air Force One’s, all of your bffs have Adidas Superstars, and you don’t want to be a part of the pack. You want to stand out, you want to let your personality shine through in other ways than white Air Force One’s.

The large heels, vibrant colorways, big logo on the sides, Hokas are a fashion statement, a conversation starter, a feel good shoe literally and figuratively. Consumers don’t just love Hokas for how they look, they love them for what it does for them, it makes them feel like they aren’t just another cog in the wheel.

To cement their authority within the fashion world, Hoka has partnerships with Free People, the specialty lifestyle brand which is the destination for bohemian fashion and Bodega, the popular streetwear brand.

Both Free People and Bodega are known for their years early trends and style choices, they’re the GO-TO sources for when it comes to being in the know in fashion.

Being associated with both brands is genius for Hoka. It has helped them shed their previous notoriety for being exclusively for ultra runners.

But why would this athletic shoe brand even have remote success in the fashion industry? It all comes back to psychology. Expression of individuality, empowerment, and confidence, Hoka’s unique shoes that stand out like a walking rainbow hit on all of the biggest desires for consumers interested in looking fly.

And of course once the brand really saw momentum, massive celebrities began donning the shoes during workouts, on their casual Saturday strolls, and at all the important industry events. 

So after all of this commotion, where does Hoka stand amongst the giants?

You can see searches of Hoka compared to Asics and Oncloud over the years, Hoka is outpacing both. 

But throw in Nike into the conversation and you can see, well there’s no conversation, Hoka still has miles to go.

Revenue in 2023 crossed $1.4B and Hoka has seen 50+% growth every year since 2020. Just for perspective on how far off they are from Nike, Nike does 12x Hoka’s yearly revenue each month.

But possibly the greatest sign of Hoka’s success is the prevalence of similar chunky-style shoes now in the catalogs of Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. Imitation really is the greatest form of flattery and a sign that Hoka invented a new tangent in the industry.

Another unique thing that Hoka has going for them is their still strong ties to the ultra running community. Unlike lifestyle shoe brands which sell at the typical $150 price tag and last users for years, running shoes are only good for about 300 miles.

And the typical ultra runner will run 70+ miles/week, do the math on that and Hoka users aren’t buying 2-3 shoes/year they’re buying 2-3 shoes per month. So they benefit largely from repeat purchases in ways brands like Allbirds, New Balance, and On Cloud can only dream of.

But who is Hoka’s biggest competitor? In an interview with the CEO of Hoka’s Parent Company he said much of their internal drive comes from the idea of overtaking Nike in the space of footwear. I’m eager to see how the industry shapes up 5-10 years from now.

Daniel Murray
Daniel Murray
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