How New Balance went from dad shoe to cool

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“For a long time, if you went to Central America, the only people you would see wearing New Balance were middle-aged fathers,” says Tom Henshaw. The lifestyle marketing director’s candid admission is even more powerful when you consider that most of New Balance’s sportswear brand rivals – including the big two, Nike and adidas – have always been puritanical to attract young people.

Fast forward to 2022, however, and the typical New Balance wearer couldn’t look more different, with a call from famous faces including actor Timothée Chalamet, musician and businesswoman Rihanna, and model Bella Hadid competing with diehard dads in the Midwest. The brand’s surprisingly broad church appeal is by no means lost on the team behind it, who even paid homage to their OG dad shoe status in a 2019 campaign for their classic 990v5 sneakers. In a nod to the editorial-style campaigns he became known for in the 80s, the print ads were adorned with a series of eye-catching slogans, including: “Worn by models in London and dads in the Ohio”.

While Henshaw admits the revitalization of New Balance’s dad-approved aesthetic is due to high street-level consumer adoption, he also believes the brand’s authenticity has played a big role in its Renaissance. “All of this was not necessarily designed by us as a brand and as marketers, [but] I think being self-referential, not taking yourself too seriously and understanding the consumer [means] we know how we are perceived,” he says.

Above: Promotion for Jaden Smith’s vegan trainer, Vision Racer, created in collaboration with the brand; Above: A 2019 campaign for the 990v5 trainer

New Balance’s journey to becoming one of today’s hottest brands dates back to 1906, when it was founded in Boston as the New Balance Arch Company and manufactured arch supports for walking shoes. The company entered the growing athletic shoe market in the 1930s, but by the end of the 1960s its size had shrunk to just six employees. It was acquired in 1972 by entrepreneur Jim Davis who, together with his wife Anne, rebuilt it by exploiting the huge growing interest in jogging. Still privately owned today, it is the only major sportswear company still manufacturing products in the United States, where approximately four million of its shoes are made or assembled.

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