Adidas Boost: The Sneaker Technology that Changed a Company's Fortunes

Adidas Boost: The Sneaker Technology that Changed a Company's Fortunes

The following comes from Jake Woolf from GQ:

It's been five years since Adidas's squishy white foam—known as "Boost"—first hit shelves. Here, we break down just how important Boost has been to Adidas—and how it changed the sneaker industry forever.

Back in 2012, if you asked anyone what the hottest sneaker brand in the world was and they didn’t immediately say Nike, you’d have thought they were either insane or lying. Nike's stiffest global competition, Adidas, wasn’t so much a distant second as an almost non-existent one. In the United States, Nike’s home base, the Swoosh was even more dominant. Its market share of athletic footwear was hovering around 60 percent, and it had just introduced the most groundbreaking sneaker technology of the millenium in Flyknit, the godfather of knit upper running shoes. On both mass market and limited-edition level, from Air Maxes to Air Yeezys, Nike looked unstoppable.

A little over five years later, though, Adidas is not just more competitive than it was a half-decade ago from a financial standpoint—with reported increases in revenue and market share—but it’s also made up serious ground in innovation and style. What sparked the turnaround? A few things.

In 2014, Adidas reissued its legendary Stan Smith tennis sneakers behind a massive marketing campaign, helping make them the coolest shoes among both fashion designers and brunch-going bros. They also signed Kanye West, whose Yeezy line of sneakers pushed Adidas to the top of the hype conversation. But Adidas also owes much of its recent success to a white foam sole called Boost, which set a new standard in comfort and cool in the sneaker market. (So much so that we've started referring to Adidas's history in terms of B.B. [Before Boost] and A.B. [After Boost]). Five years after the first Adidas Energy Boost hit shelves, it’s worth breaking down how Boost, well, boosted Adidas to the top of the sneaker game.

Chapter 1: “We Could Revolutionize the Running Industry with That Material”

Here’s the first thing to know about Adidas’s premier running shoe technology: it’s not actually made by Adidas. What we know as Boost is actually made by a German chemical company called Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik (BASF for short), and the Three Stripes just pays BASF for the exclusive rights to this technology. BASF first developed what became Boost in 2007. At the time, it was nothing more than tiny little white particles the company called “energy capsules” (which basically look like squishy Tic-Tacs). Later, BASF’s scientists realized the particles were useful when welded together with steam into one solid piece. The first time Adidas saw Boost, it was via a small, tennis-sized ball that was used as a demo to show just how bouncy the material is. “We could not believe how higher the ball bounced back compared to EVA foams which were the standard material at that time. We could not stop watching this video and imagined what we can do with that material: we could revolutionize the running industry with that material,” says Matthias Am, the Category Director of Global Running at Adidas. By 2012, the company was testing prototype shoes with Boost.

But what makes Boost genuinely innovative? It’s all about what running shoe designers—and marketers—call “energy return,” which is what Am was talking about with the Boost bouncy ball. When it comes to wearing the shoes, it’s one of the first things you notice—they feel not unlike a very nice memory foam mattress. “The thing about Boost is that the minute you put it on, you know it’s a completely different experience than anything else out there. The comfort is something everything gets,” says Andy Barr, Adidas Director of Global Creation for the brand’s US Running Footwear division. The first Ultra Boost also looked different than anything else on the market. “It’s easy to forget that in 2013, most running shoes didn’t look like [the Ultra Boost]. They were [made of] a bunch of pieces and bright colors and bulky,” says Barr.

Adidas Adios 1 and Adidas Adios 2, the sneakers that marked the end of the pre-Boost era.

In 2013, Adidas’s running shoes weren’t in need of a performance overhaul. In 2012, the year before Boost hit shelves, Kenyan Patrick Makau set the world marathon record while wearing the Adidas Adios 2, which, while lightweight, doesn’t pack any squishy sole units. But while the brand had success among the world’s most elite runners, everyday runners—especially in the United States—simply didn’t care. In 2013, Adidas only held two percent of the U.S. market share in the running shoe category, a number that remained stagnant until 2015. Today, that number is more than nine percent, according to Barr.

“We knew we had to do something completely different to what everyone else was doing,” says Barr. “No one was wearing running shoes casually at the time, either.” Barr is right: Today it’s hard to imagine a sneaker market, athletic or casual, without Boost. That’s thanks to not only great tech, but great marketing. Boost may very well have been a runaway success on its own, but Adidas also has the greatest one-man marketing machine on the planet on its team: Kanye West.

Chapter 2: The Kanye Effect

Over the last decade, Kanye West has been arguably the most influential person in sneakers. He sold $900 sci-fi inspired Louis Vuitton sneakers in 2009, at a time when streetwear and high fashion still felt like different style universes. At Nike, he created two of the most coveted sneakers of the decade in the Air Yeezy 1 and 2. And since he joined Adidas, the brand’s ability to generate hype for its Boost-adorned products—from West’s Yeezy Boost styles on down—has never been greater.

West has his naysayers in the industry who, understandably, question whether one man’s limited-edition kicks can influence an entire market. But ask those at Adidas, as well as some industry analysts, and they’ll tell you West’s halo effect on Adidas’s entire business is legit. “When you have a product with scarcity [like Yeezy], it puts people in a more premium mindset, which means they’ll be more willing to pay full price for other categories,” says John Kernan, an analyst at financial services firm Cowen who covers Adidas.

But even before West’s own line of shoes had expanded beyond the high-top, boot-like 750, he was putting Boost on people’s minds. In May 2015, a month before the Yeezy Boost 350 “Turtle Doves” dropped, West was spotted in a pair of all-white Adidas Energy Boost ESM sneakers. Days later, he wore the triple white Adidas Ultra Boost. A few days after that, both pairs were gone from the market, and could only be found on eBay and Flight Club for as much as $600. (Both have since been re-issued several times.)

 

Barr cites West’s powerful connection with his fans as the reason he moves the needle, especially when it came to the Ultra Boost. “[When Kanye wears something], it’s an authentication,” he says. “What’s interesting is that Kanye picked up the shoes on his own for the same reasons anyone picks them up. The performance, the comfort, the sock-like feel. And so we were all excited to see him wear it.” Kernan, meanwhile, specifically cites the Ultra Boost as the most successful Boost sneaker to date, in part because it has a profit margin “several hundred percent more” than other Adidas sneakers. But it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume that many customers were willing to pay full price for the $180 style (which again as Kernan says is a big deal) because Kanye West wore them first.

Beyond Adidas running shoes, West’s own line of sneakers—including the insanely popular low-top Adidas Yeezy Boost 350—all feature Adidas Boost in the soles save for the new Adidas Yeezy 500. Design-wise the 350 feels like an extension of the Ultra Boost’s sock-like proposition, albeit a slightly more futuristic version. More than two years after the first 350 dropped, Adidas released the gray Yeezy Boost 350 V2 “Beluga 2.0,” the most widely available Yeezy Boost to date, which reportedly sold upwards of 200,000 pairs upon its release. So with Boost technology adorning each Yeezy 350 sold, it’s no wonder that the tech has spent the last three years trickling down from sneakers that kids sweat to get to ones even your uncle can pick up at the mall.

And here’s the kicker: West joined Adidas in late 2013—after the first Boost release—and didn’t issue his own sneaker until early 2015. But this fact actually supports the claim that West’s own Boost shoes aided the tech’s mass adoption. Until 2015, Adidas’s U.S. market share was still declining, but between 2016 and 2017—when Adidas ramped up production of Yeezy Boost sneakers—that number nearly doubled.

Boost By the Numbers

  1. $23 billion: Adidas’s global revenue in 2017, versus $18.67 billion In 2014. (Source: Adidas)
  2. 11.8%: Adidas’s share of the U.S. athletic footwear market in 2017, up from 8.7% in 2015 and 6.3% in 2016. (Source: NPD)
  3. 68%: The percentage of products sold at Foot Locker that were Nike in 2017, down from 72% in 2016. (Source: Cowen)
  4. 97%: The percentage of Adidas sneakers sold on StockX since 2017 that feature Adidas Boost technology. (Source: StockX)
  5. 48.9%: The percentage of allsneakers sold on StockX since 2017 that feature Adidas Boost technology. (Source: Stockx)

“People knew the Three Stripes, but until Boost, there was no reason for someone to choose Adidas over our competitors. In our consumer groups, most people say Boost is the reason they’ve taken notice of us.” — Andy Barr, Adidas Director of Global Creation

Chapter 3: Boost Beyond Performance

Concepts, a sneaker shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts that’s both a boutique and a frequent collaborator with brands like Nike, Adidas, and New Balance, isn’t where local Boston Marathon runners go to shop. Rather, it’s the kind of place that’s popular with kids looking for new limited-edition releases and the kinds of sneakers that turn heads on city streets (slash get a ton of likes on Instagram). That’s why, co-owner Deon Point says, the running-first Ultra Boost wasn’t even initially offered at Concepts when it dropped. But once it hit Concepts’ shelves, the style’s popularity in 2014 and 2015 as an everyday shoe signaled a turning point for Adidas’s business at Concepts. “Before Boost, Adidas was relying on its classics,” like the Stan Smith and Superstar, Point says, “but frankly it was kind of hitting a wall. When Ultra Boost came out, it was sort of the perfect combination of technology and style. Moments like that are few and far between.”

Point is careful not to give all of the credit for Adidas’s success to Boost. Styles like the Stan Smithand more recently the Adidas Gazelle and Superstar were major catalysts, though today they seem to have cooled off. (On the company’s Q3 earnings call in 2017, Foot Locker executive Lauren Peters noted a slowdown in sales of the Adidas Superstar, which was the best selling sneaker of 2016 in the United States.) While this might not be great news for Foot Locker and Adidas in the short term, the trend suggests that Boost-adorned kicks will soon be doing most of the heavy lifting for Adidas. Which, in all likelihood, means more shoes than ever designed with—and retrofitted to include—Boost.

Today, Point says collaborations with the likes of Pharrell and skate brand Palace have helped Boost stay relevant. These shoes don’t do major volume for Concepts, but they’re a reason to come into the store—and a reason to shop Adidas. In Point’s estimation, Concepts’s Adidas business is 10 times what it was in the pre-Boost era. And while Nike is still the store’s number-one brand in terms of volume, Adidas is making up ground. “Adidas really took over the place of the six or seven brands that all used to be behind Nike. Now it’s really just Nike and Adidas,” he says.

Chapter 4: Adidas’s Future With (or Without) Boost

Adidas’s United States HQ in Portland, Oregon is just a 17 minute drive from Nike’s global campus, a distance that feels awfully close for two companies dedicated, Spy vs. Spy-style, to keeping secrets from one another. But even if proximity weren’t a factor, there’s no way the folks at the Swoosh could have avoided Boost’s wild popularity. Nike has long been the king in the United States, and it won’t give up the throne easily. Most recently, that means introducing two different sole technologies that feel like a direct response to Boost. Nike’s first shot at Boost was ZoomX, which was created to help runner Eliud Kipchoge break the 2-hour barrier in the marathon. But for much of 2017, ZoomX was only available in hard-to-get high-performance sneakers like the Nike Zoom VaporFly 4%—an achievement in design that has yet to realize its mass-market potential. The more immediate threat to Boost was unveiled just last week: Nike’s React foam. Early reviews of the shoe note that React is has the goods stuff in terms of comfort and running performance, but if social media is any indication, Nike may have come a little too close to the Ultra Boost—the sock-like upper, the foam sole. All of that makes sense on paper, but considering the Ultra Boost is already three years old, one has to wonder if Nike is a little late to the game. So with the foam sole market now officially crowded, Adidas is in need of its next big idea.

One way to keep attention on Boost is improving it. “We are not stopping with Boost. We are innovating within Boost, as we showed with the launch of Boost Light last year,” Adidas’s Am says. But like the original Boost, Boost Light—which is exactly what it sounds like—is currently only use for its top-line marathon shoes. In other parts of Adidas’s business, Boost also gives Adidas an advantage when it comes to actually making shoes faster than the competition, particularly at its new Atlanta “Speedfactory.” But making Boost lighter and faster isn’t the game-changer Adidas will eventually need to keep making up ground.

Enter Adidas’s Future division, which, like Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, is a department whose sole goal is to think up game-changing ideas. That branch recently conceptualized and developed the FutureCraft 4D sneaker, a style that is some indication of the Three Stripes’ next step. For now, the shoes aren’t ready to be mass-produced for a number of reasons. For one, they demand some serious technology that involves liquid plastic, light, and air to create their web-like soles, and Adidas simply doesn’t have enough equipment right now to scale production. And while Adidas just opened Speedfactory as the first step to making shoes faster, Barr says fitting a customer for shoes and getting them custom kicks in under a week—and eliminating months off the production process—is still years off. But most of all, the Futurecraft 4D sneaker is significantly heavier than a pair of Ultra Boost sneakers, and its soles are stiffer and less bouncy than Boost. In other words, they don’t provide much in the way of an improvement to the person actually wearing them.

But the answer might be right under their Adidas’s nose: Boost may not even be close to reaching its potential. John Kernan estimates Boost-adorned sneakers currently make up less than 25 percent of Adidas’s overall footwear business, but he predicts that number will only grow. Yeezy Boosts are obviously the most hyped of the Boost line-up, but data shows all Boost sneakers generate buzz on the aftermarket. According to StockX, which acts as a middleman between buyers and sellers of rarified sneakers, Adidas sneakers with Boost make up 97 percent of all Adidas shoes sold on its site. Adidas owns just about 12 percent of the U.S. athletic footwear market—but it currently has 51 percent of the resale market on StockX.

Hype is good for a brand's perception in the marketplace, but Adidas doesn't make any money when some reseller turns a 500 percent profit on a pair of Yeezys. The fact remains that at the primary retail level, Nike’s market share is still four times that of Adidas, and more if you count Jordan Brand as part of the Swoosh’s portfolio. Adidas might be on the right track thanks to Boost, but it’s going to need to find what’s next if it wants to keep the Sneaker Wars interesting. But there’s a mighty good chance that whatever’s next involves Boost.


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