How 5 Sports and Shoe Brands Are Convincing Millennials to Lace Up

Converse, Asics aim for 'actions and authenticity' in marketing

Millennials famously crave deeper, meaningful involvement with the world around them—and they often view athletic footwear, apparel and gear as a means of strengthening that connection and enhancing their personal growth. While old-school appeals focused on sports stars, product performance and fashion are still in the running, some brands have pivoted in recent years, taking an increasingly holistic, lifestyle-focused approach to get their pitches across the finish line with the all-important young-adult demographic.

"For the millennial generation, their relationship with brands is more than just 'tell me,'" said Al Moseley, president and chief creative officer at 180 Amsterdam. "They need actions and authenticity that show you can be a valuable part of their lives."



Themes of personal empowerment and confidence—hallmarks of millennial-focused marketing—are amplified in recent work from Keds. Allison Williams, Ciara and Tori Kelly portray strong, capable women prepared for all challenges that might come their way. Crafted by KBS, the work reflects the "multifaceted character" of its audience, said Keds chief marketer Emily Culp. "I focus on developing with my team content that should not only be able to stand on its own, but also consumed together to create a richer story." Though the message is heartfelt, Keds keeps the atmosphere light in the ads tagged "Ladies First Since 1916," striking "exactly the right tone" for millennials, who don't appreciate preachy ads, said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD Group.


Walton Isaacson's first work for Spalding, which sells athletic equipment and apparel, is something of a hybrid. Launched in February, "True Believers" fuses athlete-endorsement tropes—Portland Trail Blazer Damian Lillard is featured—with content that encourages fans to believe in themselves and make the most of their abilities. The work attempts to forge a bond between the brand and consumers, positioning Spalding as a team player in helping them realize their own hoop dreams. "This strategy has been successful for us in reaching millennials because it delivers an experience and not just a product," said Kenyatta Bynoe, Spalding's vice president of marketing.

Spalding True Believer: Damian Lillard from #TrueBelievers on Vimeo.


This year, 180 has launched two very different campaigns for Asics with millennials in mind. "One With the City," which broke last week, employs quirky animation to tout the new Tiger GEL-Kayano Trainer EVO sneaker. The centerpiece video shows a cool dude whose body is comprised of buildings, bridges, road signs and other familiar elements of the urban scene.

Asics' "Want It More," which dropped in February, fuses lifestyle and "tough-fitness" motifs, presenting fiercely determined millennials who work up a sweat in weight rooms, on yoga mats and in boxing rings. That effort "speaks most powerfully to something deep inside the women and men who make up the millennial generation," said Judy Austin, a marketing professor at Boston University. "I am in awe of the artful balance that portrays women as equal with men."


The undead enliven Leo Burnett's cheeky cinematic spot for Brooks, in which zombies invade a town and head straight for the sneaker aisle. Donning Brooks shoes, they go for a dawn (of the dead) run and undergo an amazing change that illustrates the tagline, "Running makes you feel alive." In the spot, Brooks attempted to portray the transformative power of the product, but not everyone approves of how they brought the message to life. "While zombies do resonate with this generation, the commercial seems inadequate in linking core millennial values with the product," said Manish Tripathi, co-director of the Marketing Analytics Center at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.  


Of course, millennials came of age in a world saturated with digital media and social sharing, and they generally expect their favorite brands to be as tech savvy as they are. Converse, working with ad shop Anomaly, answered that call last week, introducing an interactive mobile game starring Vadim Makhorov and Vitaliy Raskalov, who became famous for scaling skyscrapers worldwide. Packed with dazzling aerial photography, the game—touting the Chuck Taylor All Star II line—lets users share the experience with the extreme climbers as they ascend Moscow's 1,112-foot-tall Mercury City Tower. NPD's Powell said the offering smartly taps into millennials' "sense of adventure and their love of video games." Around Valentine's Day, the Anomaly team released an innovative split-screen film, Lovesick: Converse Couples, spotlighting dancers, musicians, graffiti artists and others who discuss their work and relationships. That push has garnered considerable praise for its inventive storytelling, with critics applauding the fact that Chucks aren't shoehorned into the narrative.

This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.