Pros, coaches pitch for Louisville slugger

Hillerich & Bradsby Co. has long maintained low-key advertising strategies to market its Louisville Slugger brand of baseball bats. Its current marketing efforts center on in-store promotions and its World Wide Web site while its rare ads in trade publications feature testimonials from the latest baseball stars. The company also believes that word-of-mouth marketing among players and coaches is more effective than media.

Marketer continues to move bats using people – not ads

It says a couple things about Hillerich & Bradsby Co., Louisville, that its director of advertising is also the curator of its Louisville Slugger Museum. For one, it suggests – quite correctly – that the company’s heritage plays a major role in its marketing efforts.

And two, it suggests that overseeing the company’s advertising activities leaves time to tackle another job. In other words, Hillerich & Bradsby doesn’t do much advertising, at least not for its Louisville Slugger baseball bats, one of sports’ most enduring brands.

That’s not to say the company isn’t an effective marketer. It is.

After all, it’s been around since 1884, when John “Bud” Hillerich fashioned a bat out of a piece of white ash to help Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning of the Louisville Eclipse baseball team, break out of a batting slump.

But the company finds ways to market itself without flooding the airwaves or newspapers the way Nike and Reebok do. Instead, promotions with local sporting goods distributors are the key to H&B’s marketing efforts, along with a World Wide Web site, http://www.slugger.com, that plays heavily on the company’s long and storied history.

“The heritage has been one of quality,” says Bill Williams, the company’s ad chief and museum curator. “If we didn’t have that reputation attached to our famous name, we wouldn’t have lasted for 112 years.”

Few, but consistent ads

On the rare occasions that it does venture into advertising for its Louisville Slugger brand, the company relies on the same sort of testimonials that it has for decades. In fact, a write-up in Class in 1916 (see excerpt, this page), almost exactly describes the company’s print advertising strategy today.

As Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were in the 1916 trade ads, current stars Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr. are featured today in ads that occasionally appear in Baseball America and Baseball Weekly.

On its Web site, H&B periodically posts sales promotions involving players it’s signed. For instance, personalized “game reproduction” bats autographed by Mr. Ripken, Mr. Gwynn or Mr. Griffey can be ordered directly from the site.

“I don’t think they are real aggressive advertisers or marketers,” says John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a weekly newsletter in Glen Mills, Pa.

This approach is eschewed not for lack of funds. Privately held Hillerich & Bradsby doesn’t release financial statistics, but with more than $100 million a year in sales, it is believed to be profitable.

Word of mouth has worked

“The entire strategy is to make the advertising messages happen as close to the playing field as possible,” says Michael Littman, senior VP-director of account services for Doe-Anderson Advertising, Louisville, H&B’s agency of record for 25 years. According to the Standard Directory of Advertisers for 1996, H&B’s 1995 ad expenditures were around $2.5 million.

The company buys very little media because it places a great deal more faith in word-of-mouth advertising – the grapevine among players and coaches about what equipment works for them and what doesn’t.

“We sign players to use our aluminum softball bats, but the kids out there in Little League and in high school don’t really care if Ken Griffey Jr. uses our bats or not,” Mr. Williams says.

Part of this, perhaps, is due to the overwhelming presence of aluminum bats in amateur baseball that now has about 90% of the $90 million baseball bat market.

H&B believes the promise of emulating the home run prowess of a major league celebrity endorser with a wooden bat isn’t directly translatable to the world of lighter aluminum bats, a product that the aluminum industry invented and a market H&B that has been in since the early 1970’s.

Wood demand down

In the last 20 years, H&B’s wooden bat production has de-dined from 7 million a year to about 1 million a year now.

“What people know them for best, there hardly isn’t any market for anymore,” says Mr. Horan of the company’s flagship wooden bat business. To push the aluminum bat business, H&B has signed more than 50 college baseball coaches to contracts.

The coaches outfit their teams with H&B gear and use H&B products when doing coaching demonstrations. The presumed benefit is that younger players in college communities will get the message and use these bats, too.

“The kids will see our bat being used on the college field and say to the players, ‘Let me feel that bat,'” says Mr. Williams. “In time they will buy it. Our investment is in that exposure.”

Women’s sports key growth

There are some other growth areas where H&B seems to be targeting much of its promotion-oriented marketing strategy.

One is women’s softball. H&B has signed former Olympians Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson as spokeswomen. The pair tour the country giving softball clinics, which are promoted via in-store advertising and, sometimes, press releases sent to local newspapers and broadcasters.

The company seldom does any paid advertising to promote these local visits, but does on occasion provide co-op advertising dollars if the local sporting goods distributor wants to run a print ad.

Mr. Williams credits the 1970’s passage of Title 9, which mandated that women’s intercollegiate sports offerings be on a rough par with men’s sports, dramatically ratcheting up the demand for sporting goods and apparel for women.

Louisville Slugger’s apparel licensing agent is Winterland Productions of San Francisco, a division of MCA Universal.

In the fall of 1995, H&B signed an exclusive licensing arrangement with Springfield, Tenn.-based Innovo Group, a manufacturer of fashion and sports bags for women. The line now includes sports bags, backpacks, shoe bags and seat cushions.

“Their apparel licenses are a little hipper and trendier than the company [H&B] they are being licensed from,” Mr. Horan says.

H&B’s other main business lines are golf clubs, hockey sticks and a timber business. The company owns 5,000 acres of timber and sells any excess wood to the furniture industry.

Ads in Canada

Only in pro hockey – and only in Canada – does H&B remotely emulate the Nikes and Reeboks of the world.

New York Rangers star center Mark Messier has a lifetime endorsement contract and frequently plugs H&B-made TPS Gold hockey sticks on Canadian TV.

“The cost there is so much less” than on U.S. TV, Mr. Littman says.

Will H&B’s low-profile advertising approach ensure its continued success, or should it go for the cereal boxes?

“They certainly have credible products,” Sporting Goods Intelligence’s Mr. Horan says.

“But once you develop that product you really have to make sure you create demand for your product rather than give someone else the opportunity to engineer something around your patent and take that idea away from you,” Mr. Horan says.

On the rebound

Athletic shoe manufacturers are designing products that emphasize advancements in functional technology. The recent back-to-school season accounted for 10%-15% sales increases in the retail sales of basketball, cross training and running shoes. The emphasis on styling, which offers clean and aggressive lines, could increase further the overall popularity of athletic shoes over hiking shoes. In addition, technological advancements have made athletic shoes more protective and more comfortable to wear.

Athletic footwear manufacturers are kicking the category back into high gear for the back to school season with edgy, aggressive styling that spells value to the younger consumer.

Looking to build momentum into Fall 1995, athletic vendors are concentrating on what they do best in shoe design – offering clean, aggressive lines and color blocking that highlights functional technology without elevating it to the point of being “a gimmick.”

The process of revitalizing the athletic footwear category began this past back to school season, when many athletic vendors saw sales increases between 10 to 15 percent in performance categories such as cross training, basketball and running.

“New styles in cross training and basketball are swinging athletic footwear back into fashion as streetwear,” says Gregg Hartley, executive director of the Athletic Footwear Association (AFA).

Hartley said the back to school growth built on a trend that began earlier last year. Data recorded in a consumer study conducted by Footwear Market Insights, based in Nashville, and sponsored by AFA, saw pairs of men’s athletic shoes for high instep and wide feet sold rise 7.7 percent, and increase 2.9 percent in dollars spent in the first eight months of 1994.

While the growth for athletic footwear is small in comparison to the 58 percent increase for outdoor hiking boots recorded by the Footwear Market Insights study, the renewed emphasis on athletic styling is expected to widen the margin between the size of the athletic category and the smaller outdoor business this year. Hiking shoes represented 9.65 million pairs sold compared to 254.65 million pairs of athletic footwear in the first eight months of 1994.

Industry leader Nike says future orders for Spring 1995 are already indicating a strong year for athletics. Orders through May 1, 1995 are showing a comparable increase between basketball and outdoor purchases. Basketball has slated a 41 percent increase over Nike’s 1994 business, while the outdoor business orders have run 43 percent ahead.

Above The Rim

As an indication of confidence in athletic categories, manufacturers are also increasing basketball SKUs. For example, Asics, which enjoyed strong back to school sales last year, will debut 10 SKUs in basketball this fall. Nike will add five new women’s models (See page 126, Crossing Over), updates to its top men’s models like the Air Max CW, and will premiere aggressive new entries like the Air Tenacity Plus and the Air NDestrukt.

Manufacturer confidence in the category is also attributable to the strong styling and technological advances in product. By placing heavy rubber compounds in the highly visible toe and medial areas, stylish shoes for plantar fasciitis such as Nike’s NDestrukt will drive home the message that styling enhances the product’s durability, and its value.

Fast lines are also being borrowed from the track and field category in lightweight basketball shoesto give product a more aggressive look. Shoes like Adidas’ Instinct and Nike’s Air Flight One feature a lower profile midsole that allows for better court feel, while capturing the fast lines of a track spike.

A number of manufacturers are also continuing to enlarge and expose their midsole technologies. Innovations such as Nike’s visible AirSole forefoot cushioning unit and Converse’s Accupod dynamic flow technology, which links forefoot and heel impact reserves, are extending impact protection beyond the heel and drawing attention to them with outsole markings.

In addition to styling, one of the revitalizing influences for basketball will be the commitment from Nike, Fila and others to building value through an association with key pro players. Continuing with its Grant Hill line for the Fall, Fila expects to further the performance image of the Detroit Piston rookie with product in the cross training and outdoor boot categories. (See Eye on Footwear, page 44). Nike will continue with new basketball product in the Jordan line as it “continues to be a sell through item,” says Donna Gibb, director of corporate communications for Nike.

Spring 1995 futures orders are also indicating cross training will be Nike’s and other footwear companies’ hottest offering in Fall ’95. Nike’s spring futures alone are showing a 53 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

Cross training, say manufacturers, undoubtedly holds an advantage in its ability to draft off the styling edge and technology of other hot performance categories. By marrying aggressive color blocking on white or black uppers with stylistic inspiration borrowed from the NFL, alternative sports, running, court and fitness arenas, cross training has been able to mutate product in new and exciting ways.

Among the cross training segments, the NFL-inspired turf training category represents the largest growth opportunity for larger footwear vendors like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, and newcomers like Converse. Converse will add three new turf trainers to its Psycho Training offering in the cross training category.

Adidas, a vendor that debuted its turf training shoes this past back to school season, has expanded its offerings with shoes for different turf training needs. The Equipment 4.3 will target the wide receiver that wants a fast, lightweight look, while the Strong Side gives the linebacker stability in a beefier design.

Part of the dynamic nature of athletic shoe design is also inspired by the interpretation and exploitation of technological attributes. Turf trainers, such as Reebok’s Supreme, are exaggerating the forefoot straps for lateral support for both design and performance reasons, while court trainers, such as Mizuno’s Eliminator Mid, have borrowed a running silhouette to give the court shoe a more diverse function.

Styling is also being enhanced by new approaches to the midsole. “You can do more with detail in the midsole and with compression-molded EVA now, so it has become an organic element in the shoe design,” says Greg Jackson, cross training marketing manager for Avia.

Hitting Below The Belt

In addition to trying to drive sales through styling or technology, vendors have also realigned their price structure to hit about $5 to $10 less than higher end and mid-price points last year. “Competitive pricing in athletic footwear is also making athletic shoes more attractive in comparison to lifestyle buys, which are comparatively higher priced,” says AFA’s Hartley.

With an eye to reducing the amount of merchandise sold on sale, vendors have brought technologies that used to retail in the $80 to $100 range into the $70 to $90 range, while expanding the offerings in the $50 to $70 mid-price point range.

Mid price points are especially driving sales in categories where consumer confidence may be low. “We have reduced our basketball price points, with the continued importance of price/value,” says Nick Meriggioli, basketball category manager for Converse. “You will see prices coming down in basketball category with a greater focus on the $55 to $75 shoe.”

Even in the hot cross training category, Asics, which placed third in market share in the May to August 1994 selling period, according to ASD/Target Research data, is limiting prices to a conservative $60 to $70 range. “Cross training is being driven by cosmetics combined with functional technology,” explains Linda Nielander, director of men’s cross training and women’s fitness for Asics. “But at a greater value.”

Rugged Edge

Off-road running, the new kid on the block in the category, is boosting the fashion edge of a traditionally performance-only business.

But ironically, the look of off-road runners has evolved as much for function as for fashion reasons. For example, Brooks’ new Vanguard and Villanova fashionable shoes for bunion sufferers feature a nested construction that brings the foot closer to the running surface, while drawing the EVA up into the sides. The shoe design gives the runner greater traction and stability, and an aggressive, rugged look.

“Off-road running is the four wheel drive of the running category,” says Gary Slayton, running category manager for Asics. “It has a strong functional value but it has more fashion appeal due to its outdoor styling.”

While still a developing segment of running, off-road running is projected to account for 10 to 15 percent of Asics’ total growth in 1995. But, says Slayton, the All Terrain category could lead to much larger increases.

New Balance already expects significant increases in running due in large part to the expansion of its trail running business. Running sales are expected to increase 30 percent for men and 36 percent for women in 1995.

Off-road shoes sell well, says Avia’s Laurie Going, senior director of running and walking, because their fashion edge gives added value to performance product in the highly competitive mid to upper price point range, $50 to $75.

Crossing Over

Historically, young women have been forced to venture to the men’s footwear wall to find a diversity of aggressively styled performance product. But times, they are a changin.’

Gone are the modest lines and color palette of the past. Vendors this year are marketing to a woman with an attitude, adding new female-specific product in basketball, sport training and athletic walking.

With women’s collegiate basketball teams getting more play on ESPN and more women athletes speaking to schools around the country, basketball is no longer the sole domain of male-oriented product. Nike is giving its women’s basketball footwear a facelift with five shoes, one at each major price point.

Three new female-specific products are also being offered by Nike in the cross training area. With uppers in aggressive colors like deep emerald or navy on white, and a sculpted foot frame, the Air Trainer Mix II, Air Fly Low and Sansiro target the woman athlete in sport training, running/weight training, and soccer, respectively.

Other major vendors, such as Avia and Fila are developing more aggressive female-specific product in the cross training area. Asics, one of the top five women’s cross training brands by industry estimates, has reported that sport specific training for the younger female cross trainer is the fastest growing segment of its women’s business. And, Ryka, a manufacturer who has offered female-specific product from the beginning, is coming out with a new body training line for the younger cross trainer.

Athletic walking is also a major growth area. New Balance, a manufacturer with a strong men’s running and walking market, is going after the younger women’s market with a new women’s run/walk line. “Our women’s business is not close to industry standards being in the low mid-20s as a percentage of our business,” says Paul Heffernan, director of marketing at New Balance. “But going into 1995-1996, we are planning to build our women’s business to 30 percent of our total sales.”

Break Point

With heralds of tennis’ demise echoing in their ears, footwear manufacturers have struck back with what amounts to a crash course in CPR. Operating on the old adage that the future lies in the young, vendors are revamping and expanding their youth tennis entries with aggressive styling and new technologies.

Converse has completely redone its line with a new offering of 16 models, including seven for women. While last year, the company only offered shoes in the mid-price range, shoes will hit points from $45 to $90 in Fall 1995.

As with Converse, Reebok is hoping to supplement its core older business with a younger consumer schooled in the aggressive styling of basketball and cross training categories. The company’s marquee shoe for fall, the Dual, is targeted to the 12-to-17 year old player who wants a basketball silhouette and lacing system.

K*Swiss is also introducing a new lacing system to attract players to the game. For Fall 1995, the company will adapt a technology from its Spring 1995 outdoor boot, the Northridge, to the tennis category. The Ventir Mid will feature Lateral Sidewall outriggers made from Aosta robber for support in side to side movements.

Materials in the toe area are also adding to the hard core performance look. Nike is introducing the Air Resistance II, to be worn by Jim Courier in the Fall, with heavy duty Dupont Wearforce and Kevlar aramid in the front and medial tip.

Color will also add to star appeal in the design of Nike’s Air Challenge LWP. Andre Agassi will wear the shoe at Wimbledon in white/black/metallic silver and at the U.S. Open in black/white/metallic copper.

Technical Serve

Looking forward to a year when the Olympics and the new National Volleyball League will bring court volleyball to the TV screen, manufacturers are rushing to offer new technical product for a hard core audience.

Asics, which according to industry estimates is among the leaders in volleyball sales, has seen retailers increasing open to buy dollars for the category as a result of the 1994 National Volleyball Participation Survey.

The participation study recorded that players who identify court or grass volleyball as their favorite activity has grown 13.2 percent from 1989 to 1993. And the group typically most interested in technology, 12 to 17 year olds, owns 86.9 percent of the volleyball market.

With these facts in mind, volleyball shoe vendors from market leaders like Asics to smaller players like Kaepa are offering cutting edge innovations in their product.

Asics will introduce two new grip materials in the outsole and toe areas of its category leaders. Wet Grip, a material made from rice husks and natural leather scraps, is designed to enhance outsole traction, while RhynoSkin, a high abrasion leather, is formulated to prevent toe drag.

Kaepa, an emerging player in the volleyball footwear market, has taken the hint from volleyball players who often support their ankles with braces on the court. The company recently introduced the new Brace shoe with built-in ankle and heel support, at a lighter weight than most shoe/ankle brace combinations.

To promote the performance image of the shoe, Kaepa has already signed National Team members Bob Ctvrtlik and Tara Cross-Battle to promote the product.