Brooks has made a splash over the past few weeks with the announcement of their PureProject line of running shoes (set to be released this Fall). While I applaud the arrival of more choice for runners from yet another shoe company, something just isn’t sitting right with me regarding Brooks’ approach to unveiling these shoes (and I actually like the shoes…).
It started with the first post published on the Brooks Blog about the PureProject. In the post, the author discusses how Brooks partnered with a market research firm:
“…Brooks partnered with the consumer insights and design firm, IDEO. IDEO is often regarded as the preeminent design and innovation firm. This is due in large part to their unique, qualitative approach to consumer insight gathering and how they synthesize that into inspiration for design. Our team traveled the country from Chicago to Austin to NYC to talk to new runners ages 25 to 35.”
A couple of things bothered me about this. First, why emphasize market research? If you’re goal is to develop a performance product for runners, shouldn’t the foremost emphasis be placed on research as to how that product can be made in a way that is biomechanically most sound? Wouldn’t this be the point you’d want to emphasize when introducing the product to the world? I’d have preferred something along the lines of:
We studied every type of runner we could possibly find, both in the lab and on the road. We consulted with top experts on running mechanics across the country. We designed the PureProject shoes by putting a desire for a biomechanically sound product first and foremost, because we did the research and we know what runners need to help them maximize efficiency and minimize injury risk (and we have published the data to prove it). We varied heel heights, we varied cushioning, we varied last shape, and we came up with four shoes that we think will best suit the most runners.
I’m not a marketing expert, but if I’m relying on a shoe to allow me to run fast and keep me from getting injured, this is the kind of thing I want to hear. Later in the post, the author does say they are “…keeping biomechanics as the focal point for design on BOTH ends of the spectrum.” Why not put this right up front? Brooks has some excellent biomechanical experts who do work for them – why not make them the centerpiece?
Here’s a second point about the consumer insight approach – why focus your work on new runners? These are the people with the least experience out on the roads and trails, and are least likely to be able to provide helpful information about what makes a shoe effective in practice. I want design of my shoes to be driven by experienced runners and biomechanics experts, not by people who are just getting into the sport. Maybe I’m misunderstanding this, but it seems strange.
Moving along in that first Brooks Blog post, we have this quote:
“…the new runner feels disconnected from the current retail experience. They are clearly seeking a more simple understanding of the shoe selection process.”
Sounds good to me, and I agree. But in a more recent article in Running Insight, we get this quote from Brooks CEO Jim Weber:
“We see this very much as a specialty run product,” Weber said, “because it gives stores a chance to maintain their fitting process and offer their customers two different types of running experiences.”
OK. So, Brooks learned through its consumer insight research that new runners are looking for a more simple understanding of the shoe selection process, but their CEO states that they designed the PureProject shoes so that stores can maintain their current fitting process. Which is it going to be?
“We utilize a new proactive approach to biomechanics called Ideal. Ideal technology is built into the very geometry of these shoes. It was created to promote a runner’s ideal alignment by attempting to shift force application points to align force vectors, and then load internal structures to enhance performance and decrease the risk for injuries.”
I asked this question in my first post on the Brooks PureProject, but it’s worthy of repeating – enhanced performance and decreased risk for injuries compared to what? Brooks’ other shoes? Their competitors (e.g., Saucony’s Kinvara, Mirage, Cortana, and Peregrine – hmm, four shoes…)? Barefoot?
Regardless of the answer, statements like this mean nothing unless backed up by published data that can be read and evaluated by consumers if they so wish. Brooks is by no means unique in making statements like this (even barefoot proponents do it), but frankly I’m tired of reading statements about performance and injury risk without seeing hard data to back it up. Brooks released a PDF describing some of their IDEAL technologies and included some graphs based on lab data, but there is very little detail provided so it’s impossible to judge the meaning of this information (sample sizes, statistical significance, etc.). Interestingly, much of the information they report compares the PureProject shoes to “standard” running shoes, and points to the PureProject shoes as being better in a number of ways. That begs the question – which shoes were they compared against, and which performed worse? Are they still on the market?
Publish your research in a peer-reviewed journal. Fund a controlled trial of your shoes and publish it regardless of the results (to Brooks credit, this may be happening, just hope we get to see the results – see this news release). Show us the data!
There is one specific point I’d like to make about the PDF that Brooks published on the PureProject IDEAL technologies. In the document they tout the fact that their inverted heel design moves the point of ground contact forward:
“The Ideal Heel is an innovation that shifts the ground contact point forward. The runner lands with more ground clearance right under the middle of the heel rather than on an edge behind the center of the heel. This lets force vectors travel closer to joint centers and decreases lever arms and moments, leading to reduced internal stress and enhanced performance.”
“Landing more forward and reducing the lever arm also provides a smoother transition for the runner as they spend 10% less time in the braking phase wearing PureProject™ shoes. We also found that the shoes were able to shift the landing zone forward by 3cm, which is very similar to where runners hit the ground in the barefoot running condition. This encourages the foot to land under the body’s center of mass creating alignment of force vectors through the ankle, knee and hip joints.”
So if this is a good thing, why continue to design shoes with a more traditional style heel? The statement implies that the traditional heel increases internal stress and reduces performance!
I should also note that Dr. Joseph Hamill (who is doing some work for Brooks), just published a nice little study showing that running barefoot reduces loading rates compared to three iterations of shoes, all of which had a 4mm heel lift. All of the PureProject shoes have a 4mm heel lift. In their technology PDF Brooks points out that PureProject landings are still on the heel (albeit further forward), and there is very little discussion of running form anywhere in association with the product launch – I’m hoping that this will come later. I disagree with the statement about the similarity in landing location as compared to the barefoot condition, and Dr. Hamill’s study indicated that the likely reason for the reduced loading rate in the barefoot condition as opposed to that in the 4mm drop shoes was that barefoot landings tended to be on the midfoot/forefoot while shod landings were on the heel.
“Runners shouldn’t have to pay more for less technology. We want to build a better, biomechanically sound product in a lighter package that allows the runner to feel more with less.”
Excellent, and I agree once again. Well, the announced MSRP for the PureProject shoes ranges from $90-$120. You can come to your own conclusions on this one. We need more shoes like the New Balance MT101 – great trail shoe at a very reasonable price, and likely a direct competitor for the Brooks Pure Grit.
And I’ve saved the best for last – a gem from Brooks CEO Jim Weber on Running Insight:
“If you want to live your life with a ‘less is more’ philosophy, I can understand that,” Weber told Running Insight, “but when it comes to performance product the idea that ‘less is more’ is absolute crap.”
When I think about the term “performance” when it comes to a running shoe, I think sleek and lightweight. I think as little between my foot and the ground as possible. I think of a shoe like a racing flat, much like the Mach 12 cross-country flat that Brooks makes. The Mach 12 is a great little shoe, perhaps a bit on the narrow end, but it does a lot very well. It’s low to the ground, lightweight, and free of bells and whistles. What’s more, its cheap – probably half the price of any of the PureProject shoes. Now, maybe Weber is going to start pushing for a Brooks Beast-style XC shoe, but to say that less is more is “crap” in a performance shoe is just bizarre.
This statement by Weber is also a slap in the face to the minimalist movement. Maybe that’s what Weber intended when he said it, but why offend the movement that made the market for the PureProject shoes possible? They may have been working on these shoes for years, but they didn’t pull the trigger on launching them until they saw a market – there was no risk-taking involved here. How do I know this? Because I recall quite clearly back in 2009 when Brooks was gauging interest in minimalist shoes on Twitter. In fact, I wrote a post about it on November 12, 2009 encouraging people to contact them – here’s what I said:
I just received a Twitter message from @brooksrunning requesting feedback regarding interest in a minimalist running shoe. My understanding is that there is nothing currently in the works, but that they want to hear if people are interested in such a shoe (in other words, would there be a significant market for it). If you’d like to see a minimalist shoe from Brooks, email them at email@example.com or send a tweet to @brooksrunning to let them know.
I was in the Brooks ID sponsored runner program at the time, and I was very impressed with the way Brooks had embraced the on-line running community. I dropped out of the program shortly thereafter because I realized that being sponsored by a shoe company was not a good way to be unbiased given that I was getting into review writing, but I will say that I was also very impressed with the people I interacted with at Brooks, and I don’t think Weber’s comments represent the company as a whole (I certainly hope not…).
All of this seems like a bit of a confused message – I get the sense that Brooks is entering the minimalist market not because it’s the right thing to do (which I personally think it is, and I’m happy these shoes are finally coming out), but because they fear missing out on an opportunity. It’s clear to me that these shoes are arriving to try and capitalize on a market segment that has been until now been dominated by a few other companies – first Nike with the Free, then Saucony with the Kinvara, and now New Balance, Merrell, and many others. Brooks wants a piece of the action, and I don’t blame them for that – it’s good business. It’s just that when you read things like the statement above from the people at the top of the company, and see that consumer research with new runners is being emphasized and touted moreso than the biomechanics research that seems to have been done, it’s hard to view this product launch as anything more than a big money grab.
At the end of all of this, what I really want to see is a more honest approach to the design and marketing of running shoes. I want companies to put science before marketing, and to publish the science that is done no matter what the result – after all, we are dealing with products that are designed to help people run safely. I want to know that marketing claims that are made are backed by sound data, and that they are not simply sound-bites that appeal to new runners lacking the experience to know any better. I want the shoe fitting process to be looked at in detail, and revised if what we are doing know is wrong (as recent science seems to suggest). I’ve singled Brooks out here in this post because I’m tired of reading the same-old rhetoric, but they are by no means unique in their approach. Industry-wide change and re-evaluation is needed. Injury rates are high and have not changed for decades – why is this? Is running just an inherently dangerous sport, or might shoes be part of the problem?
We need answers, and it’s time for shoe companies to take risks because it’s the right thing to do, to be truly innovative. Don’t settle for the status quo because it’s easy. Question dogma, do research, and publish it. We will all benefit as a result.
Update 10/24/2011: I share my thoughts on the Brooks Pure Connect here.