Sport360's Jay Asser chats to Stuart Henwood of New Balance about the rise of the footwear giant.
New Balance’s name refers to arch support, but it now also appropriately sums up the brand’s identity between lifestyle and performance.
Once known solely as a running brand, New Balance has morphed into a multi-dimensional entity whose roots have spread far and wide to encompass more than just sport.
Fashion has become more of a priority as the brand seeks to offer something for everyone, with the GCC especially targeted for its potential, which is why the opening of its newest store in Dubai Mall Sunday is telling of both where New Balance see themselves today and of where they want to go.
While New Balance already had nine stores previously positioned in the GCC – five in the UAE, two in Saudi Arabia and two in Qatar – the new Dubai Mall location offers the brand a face for retail in the region.
Located near the main entrance and by the aquarium, the relatively compact store holds premium real estate in one of the world’s premier shopping locations.
“This is really a statement for the brand and its expansion,” Stuart Henwood, country manager of New Balance Middle East and India, told Sport360°.
“We’ve now been in operation for around 18 months, building the brand in the GCC and opening up stores in various locations, but Dubai Mall is really the epicentre of where retail is in the GCC.
“Eighty-plus million people walked through that mall last year and really looking at the consumer mix in the region, with Saudi Arabia and consumers across the Gulf, it’s really a flagship location with where we’re positioned in the mall.
“We’re close to the entrance and that’s really a statement of intent of what the brand is doing from an investment standpoint in the region. It’s to say ‘We are here, we’re a brand that’s been existing for a long, long time and we’re really here to build the brand in a really strong way in the Gulf.’”
If New Balance’s intent with the Dubai Mall store was to signal their presence, it was surely felt yesterday at the official opening. Mall goers’ curiosity was piqued as a large contingent surrounded the shop and pushed to get inside.
It may have just been a herd mentality, but whatever the reason, New Balance surely won’t mind attracting passersby if it means drawing eyeballs to their range of products.
And those products are given equal footing – pun intended – in the store, with one wall dedicated to New Balance’s roots of running and another featuring lifestyle footwear.
On the running wall, the words ‘fast’, ‘far’ and ‘style’ are prominently displayed above the shoe display, which Henwood describes as a new way for the brand to communicate to consumers. It’s also a reminder that while efforts on the lifestyle side have been ramped up, the performance of the running products hasn’t been taken for granted.
The opposite wall is covered with New Balance’s core lifestyle shoes – the 996, the 574 and the 247 – in a clear effort to show how far the brand has come in that regard.
And in the back of the space, extending to the ceiling, is a curved digital screen that adds a unique touch and life to the store.
“We’ve taken inspiration from only one or two select locations from around the globe,” said Henwood. “One of those was Japan, where we’ve seen the sport consumer really evolve and that’s been a true testament to where we see ourselves today.
“There’s also a very unique curved digital screen that is in the store that’s been executed nowhere else globally within New Balance stores. We’ve given it the importance as a flagship location globally and the demographic of consumer we’ve been able to fit in to this store with some unique elements while taking some inspiration from Japan and also Europe.”
Japan, and Asia as a whole, has been a successful region for New Balance’s growth. While the brand’s origins are in North America, specifically Boston, the East has yielded fruitful dividends.
But while Europe and Asia are mostly saturated markets, Henwood views the GCC as emerging and untapped. The multi-cultural nature of the region, namely in the UAE, has attracted New Balance, but so has the sneaker consumer.
“We saw an opportunity in the region that we just didn’t play in before,” Henwood said. “Our
aspiration is to be a top-three global athletic brand and so we have to be in these emerging markets. We’ve been surprised in a very positive way in the last 18 months at not only our sales, but also people’s affiliation with the brand.
“Where we’ve seen the ball flung in this market is certainly on what we call ‘sports style’. It’s using the performance technology in the mid-sole, fused with a more classical style uppers. That’s really where the UAE and Qatar markets are.
“If I look more into Saudi Arabia, it’s more on the performance side and that’s been reflected in our sales. Also globally, if you look at other brands and where they’ve had great success, is in that performance bottom with that comfort and everyday use, but also people want to be seen with some stylish and classical products.”
New Balance’s focus on football in Saudi Arabia has already netted them a kit partnership with Al Nassr FC, one of the biggest clubs in the Kingdom. That union was largely made possible by New Balance’s record-breaking £300 million (Dh1.4bn) kit deal with Liverpool back in 2015.
That exposure has resulted in what Henwood calls “cross-category selling”, in which the brand can market to consumers, whether they’re football customers, running customers or just looking for a comfortable pair of shoes.
More deals like the one with Al Nassr appear to be on the way for New Balance in the GCC. Henwood anticipates further strategic partnerships with athletic clubs, federations and on the lifestyle side, with key signings that will be announced soon.
Outside of retail, Henwood has also placed an importance on signing more wholesale partnerships and building foundations with the likes of Foot Locker, Go Sport and others to ensure New Balance can reach the greatest amount of consumers possible.
And, of course, many more stores are planned to open across the region, with Henwood pegging it around 50 by 2020.
“It’s really building a structure here in the Gulf and we’re going to branch out into those other markets,” he said.
“We have huge ambitions. It’s the full 360. It’s not just about retail store, it’s about getting all that together and delivering a service to the customers in which I believe there is a gap in the market here.”