Chris Davis, Chief Marketing Officer of New Balance, on forming authentic partnerships, calculated risk-taking, and making dad shoes cool.
I’ve been familiar with the New Balance brand for quite a while. I’m not a runner or a sneakerhead, so my understanding doesn’t run deep. To me they have always been a steady brand from Boston that makes high quality footwear. I’ve talked with all kinds of companies and brands, and the cultures vary, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for companies that are privately held. This is a story of growing up in the family business and finding your place where you can shine.
How the brand is different today than the day your dad bought the company in 1972?
One thing that has been consistent with the brand since 1906, when the company originated, is it always had a desire to innovate. New Balance has always been a brand that has challenged the status quo, constantly reinventing itself, and really striving to be the best, not the biggest. And that notion has really been part of our thesis for over 115 years. So whether it’s coming out with the first running shoe over a hundred dollars, making shoes in the United States, or having business strategies that are seven to ten years versus three to five years, we try to do things differently. Addressing and embracing that challenge is something that we have owned as a brand and really made part of our identity.
You often refer to yourself as the 115-year-old startup. How has that mindset given you an advantage against your competition? And have there been any drawbacks to that position?
I wouldn’t say there’s been major drawbacks. I do think it ultimately solidifies our culture. We live by the truth that the death of all major brands in the retail, sports and fashion space really lies in the notion of stagnation. So while being a heritage brand with legacy obviously provides rich opportunities for storytelling, what we’ve tried to do as an organization is embrace that notion of being a 115-year-old company that’s focused on tomorrow. Our brand mantra is “fiercely independent since 1906.” The challenge we face internally is how we make ourselves a brand with heritage versus a heritage brand. So we embrace yesterday, but even more so embrace tomorrow and ensure that we have a strong equilibrium of what has brought us forth for the last 115 years, but more importantly what’s going to take us to the next level over the next 115 years.
Obviously there are some categories where you’re a leader, like the running category, and then other categories where you are a challenger, which creates a really interesting opportunity. How does the brand find balance between those gaps?
We wouldn’t really define that as a gap. We look at everything we do pretty holistically and work to connect the dots in a harmonized way. Whether it’s entering a new geography or a new category, we always embrace a better approach, which ultimately goes back to wanting to be the best version of ourselves versus the biggest version of ourselves. So when we enter a new category like basketball or world football or cricket or tennis, obviously it’s a different level of maturity than running or lifestyle. However, we enter those categories utilizing them as an overarching brand catalyst. Of course, we want to grow our individual categories vertically, meaning we want to have success in basketball. We want to have success in tennis. We want to have success in world football. However, we can also grow our brand from a horizontal standpoint and ensure that our face-of-brand athletes in football, tennis, and basketball are also integrated into our lifestyle campaigns and our overarching brand campaigns.
That‘s cool. You guys have a fascinating array of the partnerships that you’ve created with the athletes, as well as cultural leaders or activists. That’s something that you probably have helped spearhead and bring to life. But as you think about being the catalyst, does the halo work both ways? Does the halo of having an activist and a cultural leader also help with the athletes?
Absolutely. The best way that I can describe it is as “cultural co-signing.” Our signature shoe with Jaden Smith has a sustainability story. It’s constructed to look like it could be a New Balance shoe, but also it looks different than every New Balance shoe. That’s the first thing our global basketball athletes and football athletes want. They love the Vision Racer. So the fact that a vice captain of the English national team in soccer and some of the best basketball players in the world want Jaden’s signature shoe absolutely demonstrates the synergies that we have across the brand. And most recently we have been working with Jack Harlow on integration into some of his music videos. He was in a global running campaign for us, but the fact that we were so penetrated into sport culture enabled him to be more excited about the brand and want to rep the brand in his own right. So it definitely works both ways.
How has that halo effect helped move the sale of your core product?
It goes back to serving as an overall brand catalyst. We always say that when our biggest shoe the 574 is healthy, our brand is healthy. And conversely, we’ve learned that when our brand is healthy, 574 is healthy. So that’s a great self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of the things I really appreciate about how you create these partnerships is how you identify people, whichever world they live in, based on shared values. And I’d love to hear you talk about what those values are. What are some of the criteria that you use to select a pretty diverse group of people?
I’m a broken record internally on this, but we always talk about how our ambassadors and our partners have to represent that fiercely independent nature. And if you think about it, it takes a special partner to represent a challenger brand. It takes a special mindset, it takes a unique vision. Simply put, it just takes guts. And the approach that we really utilize with our ambassadors is the notion of partnership over sponsorship. So we like to say that we don’t really sponsor anyone, but we partner with a lot of different individuals and properties across the world. And what that really comes down to is a co-authored approach, meaning we’re expecting a tremendous amount of off-the-court or off-the-field work from our ambassadors. And we will implement a tremendous amount of work in elevating their platform as well. So we coauthor product content and we coauthor strategies.
With every ambassador that New Balance works with globally and partners with globally, we mandate that there’s community integration, whether it’s something global or local. There’s a component where they have to give back to charity with time, or product, or financial resources. It’s absolutely integral into enabling the brand to work in the community in the right way and elevating the partner’s persona in the community the right way. we’re at the stage now where we’re able to be more choiceful with those individuals who truly want to partner with us for the right and authentic reasons.
As a brand, you’ve definitely bought into the idea of a dialogue versus a monologue. What advice you would give to other brands on how to retain as much control as you can, but still relinquish the proper amount to have an authentic partnership?
The key phrase you just said is “authentic partnership.” These individuals have to be an extension of your brands. However, you have to provide them with something as well. No partnership, no relationship, no marriage, no friendship works as a one-way street. And when you’re working with these individuals, they’re entrusting you to elevate their platform to be part of their vision, and we’re entrusting them to be part of our brand. So if you’re getting into this space, you have to have the best interest of all parties at heart. And that’s when the most authentic stories will come. That’s where the most beautiful product will come. And that’s where you’ll be able to attract a multitude of different consumers to your brand. Whether it’s telling unique stories to existing New Balance consumers or attracting fans of our athletes or ambassadors for the first time, there has to be crossover integration of authenticity.
Obviously you guys are doing a lot with the sustainability initiative, giving somebody like Jaden Smith a platform to talk about the creation of his water product, JUST Water. You look at the last year and all of the issues that have cropped up in the cultural conversation. With the partnerships you have across the brand, I imagine a lot of those conversations are already happening. Is there any specific conversation with one of your ambassadors that took you in a direction you guys hadn’t anticipated?
One of my favorite ambassadors that we have, who’s just a special, unique individual across the board, is Coco Gauff. She’s a young American tennis star. And during all of the moments of social injustice that occurred not only in the United States, but globally, Coco really wanted to utilize her platform, her persona, and her voice to stand up for what she believed was right. And she asked us to partner with her on that. And part of our responsibility as a brand is to amplify the messaging and the voices of our athletes, but also to stand up for what we believe is right. So we worked with Coco to help her with speech that she gave in Delray Beach, Florida last summer and utilized our platforms to amplify her message. And this is an area where Coco challenged us to get better in this field, whereas Jaden challenged us to get better in the field of sustainability. We accept those challenges and then, in turn, utilize our platform, our ways of working our creativity, and our scale to amplify their messages. And it’s really an opportunity for all parties to improve and stand up for what we believe is right.
You hired Darius Bazely as an intern. Tell me the story of how that happened.
Darius Bazely is another one of my favorite ambassadors. We were just about to launch into basketball, which we had been working on for over three years. At the core of everything we wanted to do was to counteract the status quo and step aside from the sea of sameness that we believe the basketball industry had become. There was a story of this young man who had decommitted from Syracuse University and decided he was going to forgo playing in the NCAA and go directly to the NBA and sit out a year. He wanted to spend that time off working out, getting his game better, and just taking a different path to the NBA than what had been the convention previously. So we thought to ourselves, we have to meet this young man. He seems like he has the fiercely independent mindset that we’re desiring to evoke as a brand.
So Rich Paul, who is the founder and owner of Clutch Sports Group, who represents Darius and LeBron James and other professional athletes, came to our headquarters with Darius and his mom. And we were pitching Darius to be our first NBA athlete to help launch the New Balance brand into basketball. It was a great fit. Darius and the team jelled immediately. And we said, instead of sitting out a year, why don’t we just have him come in and be an intern for the brand? He can work out three times a day at gyms nearby. And then in between those sessions, he would help us develop our social media strategy and overall content for basketball. We brought him to focus groups at local high schools, and he was just fully immersed into the brand and had a 100% legitimate internship for a course of months. And it was the first time ever that an athlete signed with a brand to be an intern first and then a professional athlete second.
You guys clearly have a lot of irons in the fire right now. It seems that you’re moving at breakneck speed, which makes me just curious about what’s the approval process like inside. You must have pretty clear autonomy to be able to run and scale at the speed you guys are.
Definitely. We like to say that we move at the speed of Instagram, which is hard to do, but a great goal to have. We have really built a culture of calculated risk-taking and we afford our associates from top to bottom to make mistakes. We just can’t make the same mistake twice. How we’ve done that is by operationalizing our budget to be conducive to calculated risk-taking. We use this 50, 30, 20 mindset. 50% of our budget is directly allocated to more traditional means like broadcast, out of home, or lower funnel performance marketing things that we know will work. 30% of our budget is allocated towards calculated risk, like things in a different industry. 20% of our budget is purely dedicated to experimental marketing. And the expectation is that if it hits, it’s going to hit big. If it misses, we learn and we move on. If something works in the 20%, then it goes in the 30%. If it works two or three more times, it’s in the 30%, then we kick it out of the 30% and move it into the 50%.
To have 50% of your budget essentially dedicated to calculated risk taking is pretty amazing, and it looks like it’s paid off well for you. Now I’d love to talk about your story. I know you say you were born into the company, but you started working there in 2008. What is your leadership style?
I try my best to embrace a servant leadership mindset. I truly believe in a flat culture. I believe that leaders need to be themselves. I also think that you really have to embrace the fact that not everyone’s going to be your friend and not everybody needs to like you, but you need to make the honest, fair, and difficult decisions to have everybody respect you. I try to be honest, fair, and consistent to enable personal growth for the individual, but also have a department-wide and brand-wide view for growth of the company. And communication is key: being able to communicate concepts, strategies, ideas, goals, objectives that your leadership teams understand, but also clear enough and simple enough for an intern to understand. The clarity of communication is also vital and attaining business objectives, in my opinion. And then lastly, leaders have to be vulnerable. I think everybody wants to see their leader be human first and a businessperson second. Those are the things that I try to do. Honestly, there’s no book on it.
That’s excellent. And if the pandemic’s done anything, it’s made us all human first. When you were growing up, did you think you’d end up at New Balance?
I always like to say that while my sister and I were growing up, we never viewed New Balance as a company. We always viewed it as a sibling. Probably the favorite child in our family was New Balance, and then my sister and me. But obviously I have an innate passion and appreciation for the brand. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what my parents have built and how they’ve built it with such a great culture and a values-based approach. Sometimes I feel like it’s an obligation, sometimes I’m just overwhelmed by passion for the brand, but more than anything, I think what keeps me engaged, competitive and fulfilled is I love the space that New Balance is in. If New Balance was a bank or an accounting firm or an insurance company, I definitely wouldn’t be working there.
Your mom and dad were both pretty involved in the running of the company, right?
100%. And I think their partnership enabled the organization to prevail. My mom really embraced the idea of corporate responsibility and corporate giving decades ago before it was a sexy term in our industry. She set up our foundation, which is rooted in combating childhood obesity in underserved communities. Promoting healthy activity and education on diet is something where we’ve invested literally a hundred million dollars over the last couple decades. I’m amazed by their partnership and what they’ve been able to build both from a business and cultural perspective.
One last question, and I ask this to all my guests: how would you define beautiful thinking?
Beautiful thinking is thinking differently. It’s finding beauty in the mundane, it’s finding beauty in what people never thought was beautiful before and giving it a facelift and telling the story through a new avenue. That’s the way that I think about it. And I think that’s the way that the brand thinks about it too. I mean, I think we’re the only brand that could have made dad shoes cool, right?