I admit it: I fell into the expertise-trap without even realizing it. I thought I had the job down pat. After all, I’ve spent the last 13 years turning my passion for running into a career at Reebok working on footwear, apparel and accessories in various roles .

Throughout these years, I’ve learned a lot about the process of developing, improving and marketing product. But just recently, I experienced something that turned my notions of ‘proper’ product marketing upside down.

Enter Zap…

In July 2015, I was provided the opportunity to visit Zap Fitness, a non-profit training center for post-collegiate, Olympic hopeful distance runners. While Zap is home to some of the best runners in the world, they also hold camps designed to educate runners of all ages and abilities on how to improve and achieve their running goals. Some campers are experienced, serious runners, but the vast majorities are new to the sport and come looking for insights and knowledge that will improve their performance and love of running.

I had been invited to visit Zap in the past, but always found a reason not to make the trip. But in July 2015, I finally booked my ticket.

Expert tips for experts

I came to Zap with the intention of meeting and working with the elite, Olympic caliber runners in order to gauge their needs and hear input on a new high performance running footwear collection; and I gathered indeed a lot of valuable, technical feedback. At this point I didn’t realize yet, I was consumed by my own and the elite runners’ expertise. Little did I know that my biggest lesson was yet to come.

Focus on listening when you think you’ve got it all figured out

After my work with the Olympic runners concluded, I looked forward to the second day of my visit – a ‘vacation’ of sorts where I was going to participate in the running camp and teach the more ‘average level’ campers about shoe dynamics. I prepared for the shoe talk just as I would have ten years earlier as a running sales rep for Reebok or adidas. I had samples, demo shoes, and key talking points ready to deliver to the campers.

“I was ready to teach… just when the real learning started.”

While the elites could speak to exact performance needs, likes, and dislikes, I soon realized that the average camper at Zap could offer a lot more to inform my product marketing decisions.
I was able to hear about these runner’s motivations and the sense of empowerment our true consumers got out of the sport. While running served as a tool to get fit and achieve goals for most of the campers, it was the feeling they got during and after the run that fueled their fire.

More than just a shoe talk: powerful insights from the participants let me rethink my business.
More than just a shoe talk: powerful insights from the participants let me rethink my business.

A strong reminder to keep on exploring the deeper meaning of sports

One camper in particular spoke of the important and positive role running played in her and her husband’s life – how it has become not just an activity, but something that they share with each other and their daughter ultimately strengthening their family. Their only child was also at the camp and had recently joined her high school cross country team. Her mother lit up as she spoke of the confidence, and strength that her daughter has gained from her newfound love of the sport. Seeing the role running played in this woman’s life and how it impacts her family was powerful for me as a marketer.

“It made me rethink how we can build our product and message around it to be truly relevant to consumers.”

These insights into the runner’s feeling made me look at the product in a new light – from a different and more holistic perspective, providing food for thought as we work on future running footwear models and technologies.
The goal of delivering a best in class tech running shoe collection remains anchored in bio-mechanics, but needs to be driven by a desire to enhance the runner’s experience in a deeper sense.

Stay curious in all you do

Listening to their thoughts, feelings and motivations – no matter how negligible they might seem at first glance – is key to escaping from the expertise-trap.

This experience reminded me of the urgency to constantly put myself in a position where I can learn from others and challenge assumptions.

Henry Ford was dead on when he said “Anyone who stops learning is old. Whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”
The campers at Zap made me get outside my comfort zone and take on the role of the student as opposed to that of a teacher.

No matter what business you’re in, always make sure to listen – listen to those who you may think have nothing to say… You never know what you might learn.

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