A year with ASICS: achievements, challenges and a few failures

I started working on the Cloudraker offer to Onitsuka Tiger in January 2008, began supporting the ASICS office on a rent-a-brain basis in March, and became a full-time employee in May. So it’s been a little over a year that I’m involved in shaping the online presence of ASICS. As I was pointing out last year, this is a highly interesting job for me, because I have the opportunity to practice a lot of what I’ve been preaching for years. Looking back, I’m quite happy with some of the results, although there’s still much to be done.

I don’t like advertising. While I must acknowledge that ads in fact do develop business for most companies that indulge, and while I’m actually a huge fan of the creative process and its better byproducts, I can’t reconcile myself with the inherent waste it represents, and the fact it is based on lower instincts and tricking people.

Over the past year, my team has largely stayed away from advertising, mostly because we had more pressing priorities. This stance is currently changing as we have solved some key issues, freeing up some time, and are becoming more determined in ads, across all media. For me, the challenge will be to defend a certain quality of the engagement with people. ASICS and Onitsuka Tiger are beautiful brands with a very positive image, and we can afford to stick to the facts (apparently an immense luxury). I expect we should be able to step up our communication and amplify this image without having to betray our roots.

Telling authentic stories takes the right company background — which we’re fortunate to have. But it also takes a habit of identifying and spreading those stories. We’ve made shoes for astronauts, and not talked much about them, even internally. A fresh pair went into orbit again this year with Takao Doi, without even a mention on our site or in our internal communication, let alone in the media.

Aside from the obvious cool factor, those space shoes are very significant: they further demonstrate our core ability to understand the biomechanical context of use, and then to apply our knowledge of the materials and construction techniques to create a relevant product. Heels to encourage certain body motions and stave off muscular atrophy, one-handed lacing for convenience in zero gravity, comfortable padding and generous breathing for constant wear… We put all of our science in creating those shoes, and the results are every bit as fantastic as the original basketball shoe Mr. Onitsuka created nearly 60 years ago, or as the upcoming Kinsei 3.

We need to develop the stories of the products we’re actually selling to consumers. My teammate @eirefairy is an awesome example of the organization-wide transformation required to do this. She has developed what I consider three required qualities, by decreasing order of obviousness, and increasing order of difficulty:

  • professional knowledge in digital communications, which could be applicable in any company, in any industry
  • knowledge of our products, the technology that goes into them, and the theoretical framework around the tech
  • empathy for the runners, understanding of their life, sympathy for their situation

Obviously, with employees sticking to a company for shorter and shorter periods, it’s difficult to expect a very thorough knowledge of the company’s landscape. You get hired to do a certain job, and being competent in your own specialism is what you get paid for. Basic training can quickly take care of the key talking points of the company’s brand image and product range. However, I firmly believe that empathy for people who purchase your wares is a requirement to a job well done, and that’s hard to come by. And I believe that once you develop that empathy, your understanding of the company’s products is no longer rote learning, but a genuine need to know what we’re bringing to those people we care about.

I also believe it colors how you apply your professional knowledge: instead of an abstract set of skills to be applied procedurally, it beomes your tools to engage with those people. And those tools then take a different value: from that empathy for the audience, one develops pride in one’s work, and a more powerful professional ability.

Specifically, for digital communications, we must be useful to consumers. We are the world’s best running brand, but we don’t offer enough to help people start, run, track, or talk about their running. Our running knowledge section is the one major difference versus the 2008 web site. I consider this a huge innovation, because it is being taken seriously across the company, it hasn’t been farmed out to an agency: we get some copywriting help, but the point of view is genuinely ours, and I am proud of the pain and tears requied to establish it.

Monocle’s relentless retail crusade (which reminds me of Parker‘s largely successful attempt to globally redefine wine-making in the 1980s) encourages us to identify key values we intend to defend, as a brand, and then to go out and practice them. I find this a very healthy objective.

My ASICS is a good first step in helping people track their running and socialize around it, but it never received the love it deserves and is lagging behind in usability. Our efforts to improve it will revolve around three pillars: being more present to activate the community and extend the tool’s use in offline situations; sharpen features and increase usefulness, improve ease of use and lower the threshold of effort required to achieve key tasks; generally prettify the service, integrate it visually and functionally with the main site, and offer more channels to interact with it (email, mobile, etc.).

Various obstacles stood in the way of a seamless integration of online and offline activities, and we haven’t booked quite as much success here as I’d have liked to. The store locator and ASICS London store pages are good indicators of what we can do, but we’re still way under potential. Thankfully, several hybrid online-offline projects have been cropping up across the company that could tremendously enrich the site. I look forward to supporting those efforts and ensuring we retain a reasonable level of consistency and cohesion.

Which brings me to the strategy. I spent my first 6 months at ASICS dousing fires while developing an activity framework, with the help of London-based AnalogFolk (and their awesome information architecture subcontractor JH-01). The resulting blueprint was intended for 3 years, and for the ASICS site, it was composed of three major pillars (knowledge, products, community). We’ve got all three basically covered, and have developed one thoroughly (knowledge). Two more years to go in the plan, two more pillars to take care of — we’re actually on track!

Now the challenge is to deal with new requests. As we develop, unexpected and interesting challenges are coming our way. Without going into detail, I’m faced with the alternative of sticking to the plan, or jumping on these new opportunities. As always, the right answer will be a flexible and (hopefully) smart blend of both, but I feel myself becoming a defender of the plan. I believe going through with a complete idea offfers more potential than permanently reevaluating one’s options.

I think that in the past year, I haven’t only made friends, but also ruffled a few feathers. We fired a few suppliers, some less happily than others, worked a while with some but then put them on ice, and I’ve clashed numerous times with some of my colleagues in various parts of the business. I’ve also brought on board people I knew and believe in, such as Tokyo-based AQ, and people whose approach has convinced me, such as The Plant.

In both cases, there was a certain amount of risk involved: this definitely wasn’t buying IBM, and if we had failed to deliver the project on time, or if some horrible communication meltdown had taken place, it would have been easy to say: “well, what were you expecting, when picking such small, unproven suppliers, over experienced agencies?” But we’ve obtained clear benefits: a bold strategy, clean and extensible design, powerful and flexible technology (I love merb!), and a shared vision on where to go next. And value for our money, as well.

Last, but not least, I started running again–I’d stayed away from it since leaving high school, and am now preparing to run New York in November (if my knee lets me). It made me realize: all these years, I’d been missing it!

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