Since finishing college, Emma doesn´t have as much free time anymore. But that’s OK. And however much she misses some things – her daily training sessions, the competitions, the team spirit and the carefree times with the girls – she really enjoys her new life, too. It is kind of exciting. She likes the challenges, her new colleagues, the feeling that she can make a difference and be successful as well as the fact that she is earning real money for the first time in her life. But there is also this one hour which is hers alone and which she doesn’t want to miss – when she meets her friends for a run in the city park.

Emma could also be called Hannah, Sophia or Aki. She could live in New York, Paris, Moscow or Tokyo. She could also be a boy. One thing, however, would always be the same: She is the epitome of the ‘new running’ and thus part of the much sought-after target group in a huge market. Worldwide, about 15 billion euros are spent on running gear every year … and that figure is on the rise. Thereof, footwear accounts for approximately 70% and apparel for just under 30%.

But what exactly is this new running? Who are the consumers and how do you react to the change that the sport has gone through? What does it take to make use of the dynamic in order to play a key role in the global running boom – or to even shape this sport?

We spoke to Adrian Leek, the man at the helm in adidas Running. And some of his team members offered us in-depth and also very personal insights in order for us to dive deep into the world of those young runners – who they are, how they live and what is important to them.

It feels good to run – actually nearly like it used to feel. She is still fast and enjoys the light wind on her face. With every step her mind clears further and the tension of the day falls away until it is only her, her friends and the calming and steady sound of their steps. Emma looks down at herself, at the rhythmic movement of her legs. She sees how her feet touch the gravelled path and push off again. She feels the energy. 

Why runners don't want to look like runners anymore

Adrian, if I may say this – it has been some years since you started running. What has changed the most?

Well, obviously quite a few things have changed. The sport of running has changed. But one thing that definitely is much different now is the design of running products. Today, running is much younger, brighter and more colourful.

However, in one respect our designs now are actually a bit back to what you would have seen from us in the ‘70s – important is only what is best for the athletes and nothing more.

Some years back, there was a movement towards ‘more is better’ but we have totally stripped that away. If you look at our designs today, you won’t see any superfluous pieces or lines on our product. Nothing that is not really necessary.

Passion - a natural career booster

You were actually a pretty successful competitive runner. Has that experience helped you in your job?

As a runner I always had very high expectations of myself and set myself new goals, new aspirations every year. And now it is exactly that mindset that I am taking to my business life. So in this regard, it is a bit of an extension of my athletic career. It just happens that the business that I am in charge of is also my passion – which is running.

So, passion is key?

Absolutely. Passion is the absolute basis for everything that I do. And I guess it’s the same for most of my colleagues too.

We are so fortunate to be in a business where we can live our passion every day. And it is my responsibility to make my team feel that and be inspired to do great things themselves.

Innovation and the upside of failure

In 2013, you brought a true game changer to the industry. Boost. Why is innovation so important in order to be successful in this hard-fought industry and what is important for innovation?

It is about disruptive ideas, which create real value for the consumers because they help to unlock human potential. Ultimately, innovation requires an open-minded, bold and collaborative spirit.

And I believe that for any sports brand innovation starts in running. If you can innovate here, it gives you the credibility to then explore that into other categories. And this is exactly where we are with Boost at the moment. An innovation like Boost comes around every 20 years and I feel fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time to bring something that great to market.

How do you manage to always come up with new ideas and innovations, year by year, season by season?

Everybody has insights that we can tap into, even if it is just small ideas and innovations that make the athletes’ experience better. And the more of those small insights we have, the more it gains us the ability to make an incremental change. Creativity and innovation very often are about translating several experiences into one new solution.

But of course when we speak about innovation our Future team plays a big role. They are definitely the mastermind behind all great innovations that we come up with.

Emma is well aware of her good looks – her appearance is something she takes care of, no matter where and when. She likes to be in good shape. It is also her motivation for lacing up her running shoes even after a long, exhausting day at work. And meeting her friends for a run is very important to her, even though they usually don’t chat very much while they run. It’s simply nice to spend time together. Today is one of those days on which all of them want to push themselves to the limit. Their heavy breathing mixes with the distant sounds of the city, muffled by the trees of the park. Sometimes she misses the unspoilt nature and the wide fields and forests of the place where she grew up. But would she like to go back? Definitely not. Well, maybe one day.

About challenges, leveraging growth potential and the vanity mirror check

The adidas Group’s new strategic business plan is called ‘Creating the New’. What does that mean for adidas Running? How do you create the new?

We are seeing a constant and rapid urbanisation. Trends are being shaped in cities. Our consumers live and run in cities. Moving forward, we will significantly increase our presence and focus our activities on key running cities representing the largest running communities globally. We will bring ‘energy’ to consumers in a holistic approach, from the product range to runners forming part of their local running communities and activations. Our run bases are a good example of that.

In addition, we will continue to open-source our running business with our athletes, consumers and partners such as BASF to ensure we continue to create consumer-focused product.

adidas´ growth targets for running over the next five years are quite ambitous. How do you deal with such a challenge?

Our clear goal is to double our sales by 2020. But I have never been afraid of challenges. I know that if you hit your challenges head on, you can succeed. Success comes with the right attitude. And you must be able to inspire other people. A great team is equally or even more important than your own abilities.

However, prime to reaching our goals definitely is the US market and how we grow there. To fuel this growth we will establish two Creation Hubs for the category in the market. Some of our greatest young talents from product marketing, design, development and innovation have just moved over to Portland to be closer to our US consumers.

Another huge potential for both the brand as well as the Running category definitely is the women’s business. Women control over 65% of the overall purchasing power in households and from a running standpoint, women are taking over, too. If we win women, we win the entire family.

Whenever I am travelling, I go to the local city parks to go for a run myself but also to check out what’s happening – and more and more I see female runners.

Here you can find some of Adrian's top travel running locations.

Also if you look at short-distance races or half marathons, the participation rate for the ladies is already much higher than for men. Moving forward, we will definitely think women’s first and put the female athlete at the heart of everything we do.

The importance of diverse teams and adding real value

Overall your team is, even for adidas standards, very international. Is that your secret of success?

I believe that diversity is absolutely paramount to reach our goals. We have a very global team with great people from all corners of the world who reflect the multi-national spirit of the key cities that our consumers live in. But also the gender split is very important.

The most important thing is to really understand the consumers and their needs. What they want, what they are interested in, how they live and think. You need to have people on the team who connect and relate to those young runners, people who are actually part of that group themselves.

Fortunately, the evolution of my Running team over the last years has gone hand in hand with the change in the running market and the consumers out there.

Beauty lies in simplicity

How important is sustainability for you and your business?

Today, consumers not only want great-looking and high-performance running shoes, but also environmental awareness has increased a lot. Sustainability is critically important. And it is a great innovation driver for us. We are constantly looking for the right partners to help us move forward and we will definitely continue to push that as much as we can. From using the right sustainable fabrications all the way through to manufacturing excellence and trying to minimise the amount of waste throughout the production. Our ‘Element Range’ is a very good example of this.

But also our efforts to produce products more locally in mature markets such as the US or Western Europe pay into this as it will help us to minimise transportation from other parts of the world.

Having hotted up the pace on the last stretch, they now slow down and finally come to a stop. Emma takes a deep breath and looks at her friends. She thinks of tonight and a small smile creeps onto her face. It’s Friday, and tonight they will kick up their heels. Emma is happy. And that’s a good thing.


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by Vivek 06.04.2020
it was fun reading this. maybe you should look after men athletes as well.