British brand inov-8’s director of product and marketing Michael Price (pictured above) talks to Sport Industry Group about inov-8’s origins forged in the fells of the Lake District, cutting edge technology, how niche brands must operate at grassroots level, and life after takeover from a giant Japanese sportswear firm...
2018 will be the 15th anniversary for the brand, how has the company evolved in that time?
Wayne Edy founded the business with the promise of innovation and he has introduced some fantastic examples of this. Our grip technology leads the way in the trail running and off-road and also we have things like the dynamic fascia band that helps energy return and is patented. That’s ahead of things that I’ve seen at other sports brands. The inov-8 brand is centred on innovation and that innovation has helped the brand to grow.
I’ve worked for some major sports brands previously and when you are working for a niche brand, innovation is your competitive weapon. We are like David versus Goliath and if we don’t innovate then the brand dies. That’s why, for example, we are working with the University of Manchester and now are the first-ever company to have graphene as part of our running and fitness shoes.
How does a small company compete with the presumably much larger research and development departments at much larger brands?
Because it runs through everything we do. Everybody in the company is focussed on thinking about innovation and what’s next. We are very connected to the sports that we operate in. If you take mountain running, it is right on our doorstep here in the Lake District so everybody is out running virtually every lunchtime testing and trialling products. Often my best meetings are on the hills in and around Staveley.
The same thing goes for CrossFit which is very good area for us. Our US business headquarters is right next to a CrossFit box so that the team are able to trial and test all those products. We are continually looking at both innovation from a product improvement perspective but also break through innovations like our graphene usage.
Speaking of CrossFit, how did a trail running brand break into that market?
That came when our original F-Lite 195, which was designed as mountain running shoe, was picked up by CrossFit athletes and they loved the fact that it was so light, the feel of the foot and the agility it gives which really worked for CrossFit. From that, we developed a CrossFit range and we focus on agile and lightweight products. We are by far the lightest products in the marketplace and hard-core CrossFit athletes love what we do. So we have that following of hard-core athletes in CrossFit in the same way we developed in mountain running.
In CrossFit, Reebok are the big spending power, what is your position?
We are the specialist in there. Every market place has some big brands. Reebok and Nike are both in CrossFit but we are the specialists. Our range is wider so we give more options on shoes and how we compete is by providing the lightest products, making sure they are exactly right for the sport and we now we are adding the graphene enhanced grip which will be coming out in July this year.
In trail and especially fell running, which can be a close-knit community, was it tough for inov-8 to break into the market 15 years ago?
It takes time and Wayne took some risks. With the first MUDROC shoe, he bought a whole container of shoes which he needed to do for the factory and then went out and had to sell them. He sent shoes to a number of independent retailers he knew, having worked in the industry, and he went from there. We work very closely with independent retailers, especially Pete Bland Sports which is based in Kendal, because in sports categories for niche players it’s all about grassroots. Being a part of that community and being at events is key. Last year, I spent countless weekends at events and this all fits back into the innovation cycle too because you are continually talking to the end user.
Tell us more about the new graphene shoes that you developed in conjunction with University of Manchester?
It is truly ground-breaking. Graphene is the thinnest and strongest material known to man, it’s two hundred times stronger than steel. Graphene comes from graphite which was actually was discovered in 1555 in Borrowdale here in the Lake District so there is a lovely link with the inov-8 brand.
What we have done is develop graphene enhanced grip where the graphene is mixed with the rubber and that creates an outsole that is 50% stronger, 50% more stretchy and 50% more resistant to wear compared to standard rubber. These are significant improvements compared to before where athletes had to compromise between sticky grip and durability.
How do you distribute your products, is it all aimed at independent retailers?
Independent retailers are our priority, that’s where we start out in new markets and we’re now in 68 markets around the world. We support those independent retailers with differentiated products, runs from their stores and more. We are seeing a number of these retailers whether in UK, US or Germany for example who are really thriving thanks to the different product mix. The specialist retailers are helping us develop that grassroots approach as they serve the community really well.
Premium outdoor retail is really important for us too as there is a growth in trail and mountain running. Trail running has seen an average compound annual growth rate of 13% in the last three years. That is outstripping the sport market and we see more growth there. We are in REI stores in the US, Ellis Brigham is a key retailer in the UK and Globetrotter in Germany. We are expanding that outdoor channel.
The fitness side of our business tends to involve a lot more internet purchases, especially in the US. We also sell direct from our website like most brands, it gives us a way of trialling new products and an opportunity to show the whole ranges as in some countries distributors may only buy a small selection of the range. Also it is premium and accurate information for our consumers and also an asset that we can share with the distributors and retailers.
The Lake District is integral to your story as is being a British brand, was there any internal or external disruption with 2015 takeover by Japanese firm by Descente?
There was no disruption from the takeover, Descente are 80% owners of the brand, Wayne still has 20% and Wayne is still heavily involved from the product and innovation side. Being an entrepreneur he is a true ideas person and that helps push the innovation. Descente gives inov-8 financial stability, we are part of $1.5 billion dollar company and they want to help grow our brand.
Forged in the fells is one of the key brand attributes that we have gone back to in the last year. Being born in the Lake District is really important, the conditions are tough and all of our products are tested from here. This area has the best history and heritage for off-road running and mountain running anywhere in the world.
What’s next for inov-8?
In July we launch our new range of graphene products called the G-Series. For the next few years graphene will be our focus and from our working with the scientists at the University of Manchester we can see the potential of how graphene can revolutionise both footwear and also clothing.
Clothing and equipment is growing rapidly for us as a business, it’s already 20% and quite rapidly it will be about 35%. For a business that has only been doing this range for four years those figures represent real growth.