The Marketing Strategy That Led to The Meteoric Rise of Hoka
Updated: Oct 24
As you may very well know, gaining market share in any industry, not just as a startup, but for any brand is a very daunting task. But that task becomes exceedingly more daunting when it comes to gaining market share in the same industry that is currently dominated by arguably the most popular brand on the planet—Nike.
And as you may also know, just because a task is tremendously difficult, doesn't mean that it is impossible. If that were the case, then running shoe brand Hoka, certainly wouldn’t currently be the fastest-growing running shoe brand in the world—but it is.
Hoka's meteoric rise in both sales and popularity, is a story of legend in the world of business that should be studied by every entrepreneur and marketing professional looking to take on a mission that though is highly improbable—not impossible; as the folks at Hoka would attest.
When studying the rapid rise of any startup brand, the underlying factors that should be studied first aren't the brand’s products, services, or even its business plan (let’s be honest, very seldom do startups stick to their original business plan). The thing to study first should always be the brand’s marketing strategy; and here’s Hoka’s.
Create a new category
Founded in France in 2009 by Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard, who later sold the company in 2013 to designer and distributor Deckers Brands (the company that also owns UGG), Hoka footwear was created to solve a persistent problem that has plagued runners since shoes were first invented—the ability to comfortably run downhill in tough terrain.
“At first, we were trying to solve the simple problem, which is have enough protection and cushioning to run downhill through some rugged terrain.” Said the brand’s co-founder Nicolas Mermoud, in an interview with RBR news.
As noble of a cause as it may have been, Hoka didn’t grow from a brand doing $3 million in sales in 2013, to a brand that did $1.4 billion in sales this past fiscal year, to also jumping 58% in sales from last year, along with becoming one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential companies in 2023, simply by providing a comfortable rugged terrain running shoe for downhill, uphill, and flat pavement runners.
Hoka became the billion-dollar brand it is today by avoiding making the mistake so many running shoe brands before them have made, which is directly challenging industry heavyweights Nike and Adidas. Instead, Hoka did what many great brands do—created a new category.
In an interview with Footwearnews, the brand’s current chief, Decker Brands president and CEO Dave Powers, explained how creating a new category helped Hoka hit its growth spurt. “We created a new category in the running space at a time where running was getting stagnant. We came and solved a problem for consumers.”
What began as a brand built for downhill rugged terrain runners, has now transcended the running shoe space by resonating with—not just runners, but a multitude of athletes from different walks of life who do not consider themselves Nike, Adidas, or New Balance people. But a collective who now consider themselves Hoka people—which is a major accomplishment for any brand in such a competitive industry.
Connect with a tribe’s core values
Tribalism and consumer commitment have a lot of things in common. So much so, that one of my favorite marketing books, The Culting Of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers, written by author Douglas Atkin, is totally constructed around the theory that brands are now the new religion due to the direct correlation between cults and people who worship brands.
In the book, Atkin states, “To generate this response, cult organizations need to separate themselves from the status quo. They must exist outside the norms of the culture to appeal to those who feel alienated by the norms.”
As cult experts know all too well, the key to getting any group of people to become totally devoted to a movement is to find specific points of separation that they identify with and a set of core values that aligns with the groups interests.
“You must help create a sense of community around a unifying set of values and worldview. Don’t just figure out the next revolutionary product innovation (although that’s crucial). Writes Atkin. “Determine what your brand means to your congregation and build solidarity around it.” Decker Brands CEO Dave Powers, clearly understood and accepted that assignment; because he has discovered just what his brand means to his tribe.
As Powers told Footwearnews, “Our model has been to authentically connect with consumers and align with their values. So having that combination of best-in-class, innovative product and connecting emotionally in a day-to-day, authentic way is the secret sauce here. I’ve never seen anything like it. The love for this brand is just unbelievable.”
Millions of people around the world love the Hoka brand not only because their products look and feel different than other running shoes on the market; people love Hoka because of what the brand intrinsically represents. And how it makes those who have been alienated from the more established footwear brands that (to them) represent the status quo—feel about themselves.
As Atkin states in The Culting Of Brands, “Alienated individuals are the raw food of cults and cult brands. They feel different from everyone else. They feel that there is not a 'fit' where the outside world cannot. The individuals are different, and so are the cults. They are a match for each other.”
Needless to say, as a brand, Hoka has been the perfect match for consumers who have felt alienated by the norms of mainstream culture's more popular running shoe brands. A fact not lost on the brand’s chief, Dave Powers. “For Hoka, customers don’t just like the brand because of how it looks; they love the brand because of what it does for them.”
Pull, not push
You may be aware of the 4 Ps of marketing. Which is a marketing mix consisting of the four key elements used when marketing a product or service—product, price, place, and promotion.
And although most are familiar with the first, second, and fourth P, even some of the more astute marketing professionals out there often lose sight of the importance of the third P. Especially when aiming to scale their brand or business.
The reason why that particular P so often gets overlooked and underappreciated is because it represents a rather dull side of marketing—distribution.
Monotonous as it may be, distribution is a critical component in creating a successful marketing strategy. The important decision of whether to use a push or pull model has led to the success or demise of thousands of brands.
Luckily, for Hoka, the decision to utilize the pull model (which is predicated by the production and distribution of goods in accordance to actual consumer demand as opposed to predictions) was the perfect move.
“We’re not chasing business. We’re operating on a pull model.” Says Powers. “We’re protecting margins and full-price selling. That’s what you’ve got to do. We’ve been lucky in some ways. But most of it is just one good decision after another.”
The advantages of utilizing the pull model are twofold: (1) It saves your company money by not manufacturing and distributing a product that doesn’t have demand. (2) It protects the prestige and image of the brand by preventing retailers from having to reduce the market standard retail price (MSRP) of the brand’s products due to overstock.
By applying the pull model, Hoka has maintained its brand integrity as the brand's products have consistently sold well on the company’s website at their intended price point. They have also sold well in retail stores like Nordstrom, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Foot Locker—something that was thought to be unheard of for a new sneaker brand just a few years ago.
Especially considering the two behemoth brands that are also occupying most of the shelf space in the running shoe section of retail stores.