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Asics SA | Full sports brand | Brian Kerby
November 2014


now a full sports brand

ASICS South Africa started trading as a subsidiary in October this year. New GM Brian Kerby explained to TRUDI DU TOIT how this affects the brand. Photo: NICOL DU TOIT

ASICS SA has found a stylish, eco-friendly new home. A mannequin dressed in Springbok rugby gear greets visitors in their foyer: testimony to the brand’s evolution from the running shoe worn by about half of the South African marathon runners, to a fully-fledged global sports brand. This is emphasised in their showrooms, where the key focus categories are displayed on stands similar to those seen in all ASICS showrooms and retail spaces worldwide.

It also signifies the transition from a distributor, mainly supplying running footwear, to a subsidiary responsible for building the ASICS brand across several sports categories.

“Our customers are going to see a significant investment in the brand in this country,” says GM Brian Kerby, who is quick to point out that the former distributor, Jordan & Co, had done an excellent job, but that a subsidiary has so much more resources to strengthen brand awareness.

In fact, most of the staff responsible for distributing ASICS at Jordan & Co have joined the new subsidiary: former Brand Manager Janine Stokes is in charge of key accounts for performance footwear, Dawid Visser is the new Promotions and Training Specialist, Rykie van der Merwe has transferred to ASICS SA to handle trade marketing and Didi du Toit will be servicing customers.

Barbara Cole, formerly from New Balance, is supplying many years’ experience in apparel range development, while Spencer King brought his rugby team management skills across from the former Springbok supplier, Super-Brands. His former colleague Craig White is sharing his warehousing and operations experience.

Sarah Mundy, with an impressive record at SARU, is in charge of marketing, while some of the former ASICS agents have been retained. Most of the core positions have been filled: a finance team, under Shaun Turner, is in place, an ASICS demand planner and customer services specialist from Spain with “loads of experience” will be joining soon, but there are still some positions to be filled, especially on the Onitsuka Tiger / ASICS Tiger fashion side.

The brand officially started trading out of their new offices overlooking Lion’s Head and Table Mountain from the beginning of October — although they had been showing their spring/summer 2015 ranges to the trade for some time now. Jordan & Co will be doing fill-in autumn/winter 2014 sales till end December 2014, but ASICS SA started invoicing new orders for 2015 from October 1.

The showroom displays, which “fit together like a Meccano set”, reflect the versatility of the brand. Whilst running remains core, there is a strong rugby focus with RWC 2015 around the corner, together with training, apparel, netball, tennis, hockey, cricket, and the ladies business. The lifestyle segment, represented by Onitsuka Tiger and ASICS Tiger, has its own showroom, offering the same retail environment look.

The look and feel is how ASICS is portrayed worldwide, and the aim is to provide a retail experience as you walk into the showrooms, which retailers will hopefully incorporate in their displays, explains Kerby. Slatwalls have been introduced in the work area to make it easier for customers to plan and select ranges.

Large windows allow in plenty of natural light and give the staff members a unique view of the mountain across the Woodstock rooftops.

“This is one of the greenest office parks in the country,” says Kerby. “Everything is recycled and we only use clean energy.”

Power supplied by some of the largest roof-mounted solar panels in South Africa resulted in the office park being included in the pilot project to sell power back to the grid. A monitor in the vida-e Cafe on the ground floor of their building displays how much power is being generated and consumed by the park — and park management also checks on the amount of natural light and type of temperature regulation their tenants use. It is no coincidence that the Green Building Council is one of ASICS’ neighbours in the building.

The office park also has a running track, CrossFit box and bicycle path leading all the way to town, and close by, a golf driving range. It is a healthy and fit environment that is an ideal match for the brand whose name is an acronym for anima sana in corpore sano — Latin for a sound mind in a sound body.

“It is very important for our company to reduce our carbon footprint, which is one of our CSR initiatives,” says Kerby, who is proud that South Africa will have one of the ‘greenest’ offices in the ASICS group, bar the newly built state-of-the-art European head-office in Amsterdam.

This is a global priority for ASICS, where it is not good enough to do a good job, “you have to fit into the culture of the company as well,” he explains. That means doing things right and proper.

Kerby recently spent a week in Japan to understand and learn more about the corporate culture and what the brand stands for — for example, that the product is the be all and end all.

“Some brands have massive marketing machines, but our company is different, our products speak for us. Every new product has to be better than any previous model, or any competitor’s model, before it even gets to see daylight.”

Visiting the ASICS Institute of Sport Science in Kobe, Japan, “was an incredible experience,” he enthuses. “Close to 100 scientists, researchers and technicians put every product through its paces — testing it, pulling it apart, making sure that ours is the best there can be. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never seen that kind of depth when it comes to product research and the technologies that go in them.”

Shortly thereafter, some of the Springbok rugby team members and SARU officials visited the institute for testing, body mapping and interaction with the scientists to ensure that their 2015 IRB Rugby World Cup kit is the best science can supply. Apart from giving the scientists a better understanding of their on-field movements and the rigours their gear has to endure, the ‘Boks were able to share with the developers where they would prefer more protection, or a different fit. The ‘Boks also did a few coaching sessions and other promotional appearances to help promote rugby in Japan.

The HG10 technology used in the specialised ASICS rugby boots, which incorporates a heel raise, is completely unique, says Kerby. “I am super-confident that when competitor product is tested against our product, ours will come tops every time,” he says.

Apart from players approaching ASICS to ask if they could try their boots, “we have a few irons in the fire and a few guys under contract as well.” Tendai Mtawarira (“Beast”) and Eben Etsebeth have already signed and at the time of going to press they were talking to some other players.

With the IRB World Cup less than a year away, Springbok rugby jersey sales will be a major focus area for the coming year. They have exceeded their replica sales targets so far and especially after the Springbok win against the All Blacks, jersey sales spiked. Even though it was a dead rubber, supporters were buoyed by the feel-good aftermath of the test win, and wanted to buy jerseys to show their support for the team on their overseas tour.

“The Springbok jersey is one of the marketing investments where you know you’ll get a return,” says Kerby. Retail sales were boosted with signing sessions where the Springboks were mobbed by fans and point of sale materials. “We have big plans for campaigns with retailers running up to the World Cup,” says Kerby.

But, they will not make the mistake of taking their eyes off the ball with their main focus area: running. “Running is our heritage and key to our business,” he says.

They stepped in at the last minute as the apparel sponsors of the recent Cape Town Marathon, “a race with huge potential, especially with Francois (Pienaar) and Elana (Meyer) driving it.” The organisers hope to grow it into one of the world’s big city marathons, on par with the Boston, London, Berlin, etc. marathons.

They were in the process of renegotiating their contract as official footwear and apparel supplier to the Spar Proteas with Netball South Africa at print time, part of which includes educating netball players about the necessity of wearing proper netball shoes. Netball players often wear trainers or running shoes, but these wear down too quickly and the player can fall easily because they do not offer the correct ankle support for lateral movements, says Kerby.

Netball is one of their core sports, but they also want to expand in tennis and hockey — big for ASICS in Europe — other court sports, cricket and other local sporting codes.

They want to increase their women’s business and see apparel as a massive opportunity, with the first locally manufactured apparel range ready for delivery by December. A locally made performance apparel range made with imported performance fabrics at price points that are very competitive, will be a new development for ASICS as a brand. Retail interest has been very positive.

In addition to running apparel, they will also launch a training apparel range. “This will be big for us going forward, and that will be our hook into the women’s market.”

Kerby acknowledges that retailing is tough in the current economic climate. But, as a brand that has never chased the entry level consumer, they hold their own. “As long as you see value in your purchase, you will continue buying,” he says. For example, a customer will buy a R1 700 pair of ASICS running shoes if he feels they offer good value, is the right shoe for him and that they will last longer than another pair selling for R1 300.

“ASICS have a very loyal customer base and following,” he says. “But, we are very conscious that things are tough and keep our eye on the ball all the time. We’re still holding our own in these price points.”

He is also aware that there will be big expectations for them as a subsidiary. “A great deal of time and effort went into examining the investment into a subsidiary structure for South Africa before making the call. There’s confidence in Africa per se, and that will also be something we’ll also be focusing on.”

It is indeed the beginning of a new era for ASICS in South Africa.

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