On takes off: sports shoe brand co-owned by Roger Federer wins over pro runners and the public with its unique tubular cushion sole

rigatoni pasta, Swiss tennis legend Federer, Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, Tokyo Olympics

Peter Rea signed a sponsorship deal with Swiss sports brand On in 2018 after more than a decade coaching runners in Reebok sneakers.

“People were like, ‘Wait, who’s On?’,” recalled Rea, who trains the ZAP Endurance elite team in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina in the United States. Since the switch, members of his band of Olympic hopefuls have come to embrace the unique look and feel of On’s shoes. “Now, no one asks who they are,” Rea said.

That’s because On has quickly won credibility in the world of running. It’s increasingly capturing the hearts of the wider athleisure-loving public. The pandemic helped raise its profile, thanks to the lockdown-inspired boom in the running, outdoor and casual clothing sectors.

A cult following for the shoe’s distinctive tubular cushions on the sole – and backing from tennis champion Roger Federer – haven’t hurt either.

rigatoni pasta, Swiss tennis legend Federer, Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, Tokyo Olympics

Roger Federer wearing On’s The Roger Centre Court sneakers.

While On doesn’t disclose earnings, industry watchers say it’s most comparable to brands like Brooks Running – a Berkshire Hathaway unit with 2020 revenue of almost US$850 million – and Hoka One One, part of Deckers Brands, whose net sales last year ballooned 62 per cent to US$571 million. All three have steadily gained market share in the US speciality-running retail industry, according to data from market researcher NPD Group, with On closing in on Saucony for fourth place.

These companies are still small players in the broader world of sports and athleisure wear, and they’re going up against powerful competitors with huge marketing budgets and high brand recognition. The juggernaut in the field is Nike, which recently posted annual sales of US$44.5 billion and has a market value of about US$250 billion.

On, meanwhile, has been preparing for an initial public offering in New York that could value the company as high as US$5 billion, Bloomberg reported in April, citing people with knowledge of the matter. Representatives for On declined to comment.

The young Swiss company now has some 7,800 retail partners around the world, along with its own “global flagship” store that opened in New York in December. However, its roots are firmly in the Swiss Alps.

That’s where Olivier Bernhard – a former world duathlon champ and repeat Ironman triathlon winner – got fixated in the late 2000s on making a running shoe that would offer a soft landing and firm take-off. In designing prototypes, he at one point started cutting up bits of garden hosepipes and gluing them to the bottom of shoes.

rigatoni pasta, Swiss tennis legend Federer, Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, Tokyo Olympics

The “Roger” collection for sale at the On flagship store in New York. Photo: Bloomberg

Bernhard soon called on his buddy and former agent Caspar Coppetti, who’d honed his branding skills at management consulting firm McKinsey and the ad agency Young & Rubicam. Coppetti then brought in David Allemann, a friend from McKinsey who by then was chief marketing officer for high-end design outfit Vitra and today is On’s chief executive officer.

The three co-founded On in January 2010 and, within weeks, notched an early victory with an award for being the best new brand at the ISPO sports conference in Munich, Germany. Their winning shoe featured On’s now signature attachments made of rubber or foam.

They are designed, the company says, to spread a runner’s weight both vertically and horizontally, creating a feeling of running in the clouds – hence the name “CloudTec”. An early reviewer likened the tubes to rigatoni pasta being stuck to sneakers.

rigatoni pasta, Swiss tennis legend Federer, Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, Tokyo Olympics

Roger Federer wearing a pair of Roger sneakers.

“Just a radical, radical look,” recalls Jon Dennis of sales and distribution agency Fit Brands, who worked with the company when it needed help gaining a foothold in Britain. Back then, Dennis had just relocated to England after two decades in the US.

He’d twice won national collegiate titles in 5,000-metre (3-mile) US track races, before working in retail for Nike and the chain of running stores Fleet Feet. Dennis wanted a line of footwear to introduce to British running stores with his new company, and flew to Zurich, Switzerland, to meet the On team.

While the shoes caught his eye, Dennis was equally impressed with the professional backgrounds of the three founders – and how focused they were on functional design. Their biggest achievement, Dennis said, is the way people seem so drawn to the brand.

rigatoni pasta, Swiss tennis legend Federer, Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, Tokyo Olympics

The “Roger Pro” sneakers on sale in New York. Photo: Bloomberg

“They do such an amazing job on all the other pieces” like branding and design “that the consumer almost wants to like the shoes before they put them on their feet”, Dennis said.

Despite the move to expand globally, the company is still capitalising on its roots. Consider the move in 2019 to bring in Swiss tennis legend Federer as a part-owner. He’s thought to have invested some 50 million francs (US$54 million), German-language Swiss weekly newspaper Handelszeitung reported in February.

Last summer, On released the “Roger”, an all-white pair that sells for about US$200. Federer wore a version at the French Open in June and at Wimbledon in July. The strategy seems to echo Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, named after the US tennis player of the 1970s.

“Federer gets them some star power and some fashion cred,” said Matt Powell, an industry analyst at NPD Group.

rigatoni pasta, Swiss tennis legend Federer, Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, Tokyo Olympics

Federer in a pair of On sneakers. He wore the brand at the French Open and at Wimbledon this year.

Another part-owner is New York-based private equity firm Stripes Group, whose founder and partner, Ken Fox, is a member of the On board. Among other things, Fox saw the potential for On “to leverage social media and online marketing”, according to the Stripes website.

While On may lack the advertising cash of Nike and Adidas, it’s garnered plenty of buzz by producing documentary films about athletes. One followed a team of refugees from Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Morocco as they trained for the Tokyo Olympics.

Another featured Ironman triathlete Tim Don, who collided with a truck just days before the 2017 world championship race in Hawaii and broke his neck. Instead of pulling out of the contract, On traced his journey back to health.

rigatoni pasta, Swiss tennis legend Federer, Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith shoe, Tokyo Olympics

On’s The Roger Centre Court JP, available at MatchesFashion.

And On travelled to the picturesque mountains of North Carolina to film Rea’s team at the ZAP Endurance training centre. It captured the athletes training at the camp and ultimately competing in Atlanta, Georgia, in February 2020 at the Olympic trials marathon.

None of Rea’s athletes made the team for Tokyo, but he’s hopeful that will be different next time around. After all, he joined On three years ago and knows what progress looks like.

“Even in that time, they’ve advanced their technologies and I think, frankly, listened to the real runners of the world,” Rea said, “which a lot of brands don’t do.”

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