Product Launch of the Index.01 Recyclable Running Shoe: A Look Behind the Curtain
Salomon, an outdoor brand based in the French Alps, unveiled their new recyclable running shoe in the middle of a global pandemic, months before anyone would even be able to purchase it. Tim Sweeney, who leads global communications for the brand, explains how—and why—they did it. Hint: It was a TEAM effort.
W hen the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone in our company to work from home starting in mid-March, it came as one season was ending (winter) and another was beginning (spring). For an outdoor brand like Salomon—which manufactures footwear, apparel, and gear for running, skiing, and hiking—it was just as our new collection was entering stores for the spring/summer season. So while many of us at company headquarters here in the French Alps were disappointed to lose the last few weeks of our ski season, it was about to become particularly challenging from a marketing communications perspective as well.
Throughout the worst days of the lockdown, with so much suffering in the world, we were very careful about how we communicated from a brand standpoint. Within a four-hour drive of our office, the Lombardy region of Italy was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering what was happening to many of the people in our extremely loyal brand community, we quickly altered the language and tone of our communications, especially in emails and social media. We weren’t going to send people emails about buying running shoes when they couldn’t leave their homes and their loved ones may have fallen ill. It simply would not have been an empathetic thing to do.
So during those dark days of spring, we were churning out content that was more inspirational in nature, showing people the outdoors they were longing for in an effort to stay in front of them as a brand. Much of that content came from our extremely creative sponsored athletes and brand ambassadors. Behind the scenes, though, we were preparing for the time when we could once again talk more directly about our products, which are obviously the lifeblood of the business. In particular, we spent a fair bit of time planning how we would unveil the new Index.01 Recyclable Running Shoe, a new product that won’t be available until the spring of 2021.
The Index.01 is a road running shoe that our footwear and sustainability experts have been toiling away on for the last couple of years. The upper of the shoe is made of recycled polyester, and the bottom unit is made of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). Both parts are recyclable. At the end of the shoe’s life, the upper and bottom units can be separated to begin the recycling process. Once separated, the bottom unit can be ground down into tiny pellets and then combined with virgin TPU to make Salomon alpine ski boots and other products. The polyester upper can also be reused in the creation of fabric. Our footwear team is also working to make sure the shoes are collected and recycled locally to minimize the process’s carbon footprint. Sustainability is an important topic to our consumers (and our employees), who love being outside in nature.
When the world opened up, we all believed internally that the timing was ideal to tell the brand story about the Index.01. People were (and are) looking for positive news. I don’t want to overstate the importance of one recyclable running shoe in the planet’s news cycle, but at a time when people saw the earth in general as “sick,” we thought that the public would enjoy seeing something that is a positive step in the right direction for the planet, however small it might be. The reaction of our followers and media partners to this product unveiling.
"People were (and are) looking for positive news."
Making a Splash
From the beginning, we felt the Index.01 was a very newsworthy item, and we had laid some groundwork the year before to tell this story. In late 2019, when we announced Salomon’s long-term sustainability goals, we also unveiled a concept for a recyclable running shoe. That concept shoe was not anything we would sell—or even anything that was ready to be run in—but it did offer the public a look behind the curtain and build credibility for the brand when we were announcing our sustainability commitments. The reception was very positive. Media were curious to know what the concept shoe might lead to. Ten months later, we had a real recyclable shoe, and we wanted to be sure they all saw it.
In the outdoor industry, it’s quite difficult to make a splash with new products. Most are unveiled a year in advance of their retail availability at large industry trade shows in Europe and North America. Once those
products are shown at the trade show or by a sales rep, the cat is out of the bag. If a product has a particularly interesting story—like the Index.01—media picks up on it and offers readers an advance peek at it. News begins to trickle out in a variety of places, making it difficult to make a news splash when you have something original.
Our goal was to create a brand story around the Index.01 and to avoid the story dripping out slowly with limited impact. By choosing a specific day to unveil the shoe, we could control the narrative of this being a rather momentous occasion in the footwear industry and a story unique to Salomon. The approach fit with our brand sustainability communications strategy as well, which is to consistently tell authentic brand stories about the topic and humbly build credibility over time.
To keep the Index.01 under wraps until our unveiling date, September 3, we asked our national marketing managers and local PR agencies around the globe to keep the shoe as quiet as possible. Any media who heard about it were under embargo until that date. The same embargo was communicated to our internal stakeholders who would play a role in the unveiling of the Index.01—our social media team, athletes and ambassadors, our CRM team, our retail marketing department, and even our HR team, who communicates brand stories to our employees via internal platforms.
In the meantime, we assured them we would provide all the assets they needed to play a role in the announcement of the shoe:
- An in-depth press release with insight on how the shoe was created
- Product photos done by our in-house photographer in our in-house studio
- Lifestyle photos of people running in the shoe
- A four-minute video with insight from product experts on how the shoe was made (to be shared with media and posted on our social channels)
- Access to our experts for media interviews following the announcement
Planning Via Video-Calls
Luckily, the product and lifestyle photos had been shot before we went into lockdown, and I could write the press release from the comfort of my home, with help from our product experts. Given that we were all working from home for most of the spring, the planning and creation of the video asset was a little more challenging. Most of the initial planning for the Index.01 launch took place via video calls. To keep things progressing, we scheduled biweekly online meetings starting in April among the people involved, which included our road running footwear product manager; our footwear sustainability manager; our head of social media; a marketing activation specialist responsible for bringing the shoe to market in 2021; the content manager who was working with an outside video creator on a video shoot that would take place inside our building; and myself, who would lead the PR announcement, organize a lot of these moving parts, and help with script writing for the video. Later, as we got closer to the launch date, we began to add members of our email marketing team and our digital marketing team so that we could drive people to our website—but more on that later. I also used the Microsoft Teams platform for monthly calls with our PR agencies in our biggest global markets, so they knew what was coming.
The creation of the four-minute video was the biggest challenge on the list because we needed to be able to gather the experts and the videographer in the same place. With all of us locked down in our homes for 23 hours per day and our offices closed, that was going to be difficult. The key was having everything ready to go—the script, the shot list, the people, and the assets we would use in the shoot—when it was okay to gather people together again.
The goal was to create a longer-than-normal (for us) product video that explained why and how we created the Index.01 and how our team problem solved to make it happen. Of course, we also needed to include some of the performance benefits, so we had a lot to squeeze in. The tricky part was that the video had to appeal to multiple audiences. First, it was going to support the press release because we would be pushing it to our media contacts around the world to support their online stories. That meant it had to have more of a storytelling feel than a marketing feel. At the same time, we needed a piece of content that would catch the attention of our 900,000 Instagram followers. To solve that, we put some strong teasing imagery right at the start of the video in order to keep people from swiping right past the post.
Back in the Building
When we were able to get back into our building on a part-time basis, the video shoot took place in one day. Except for some messaging that needed to be tweaked and a few stock-image choices, we left the creative aspects of the video up to our content manager and his videographer, who did a fantastic job. From there, we rushed to create an SRT file of the English subtitles, then got translations in a number of languages so it would play with the correct subtitles on YouTube depending on where people were. As always, the version for Instagram had subtitles hard coded into the video because not many people watch videos with the sound on.
As planned, we unveiled the shoe on our social channels on Thursday (never on a Friday!), September 3, at 4:00 p.m. in Europe so the populace of the eastern United States would also see it at 10:00 a.m. EST. We used the video asset and the great product imagery in Instagram posts, in Instagram Stories, and on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. We also published it on our internal intranet platform so that employees would share it across their own channels. They were proud to share a sustainability story, and that had a huge effect on our reach, especially on LinkedIn.
Perhaps our greatest asset is the community of sponsored athletes and ambassadors we have across our various sports disciplines. We have not only professional trail (mountain) runners—who would obviously be sharing with their running followers—but also professional freeskiers, World Cup alpine and cross-country ski racers, and a stable of outdoor ambassadors. All of them are passionate about the environment, so when we made the video and photo assets available via a shared drive, they shared them right on cue on their own social media channels. Collectively, their network of followers is several million people.
Rallying the Base
To take advantage of all this attention, we had also worked with our digital marketing team to connect with our community who is not on social media. First, we asked them to send an email about the shoe to our database. The email’s call to action linked to a page on our website where people could enter their email addresses to be notified when the shoe is available this coming spring. I can’t share any exact numbers, but I was surprised how many people registered, and this passionate group will be the first ones we notify when the shoe is available for purchase.
Once they registered, we directed them to a blog post, which went into more detail about the development process of the Index.01 and was translated into six languages so that people in our biggest markets would see it in their native languages. That is crucial for SEO purposes, too. We also shared the video and photo assets, as well as the blog post, with our retail team so that the employees in our brand stores would be able to answer questions from consumers who had seen the shoe online.
Covering the News
Because the PR agencies we use across the world have close relationships with media in our industry, they had delivered the translated press release and photo assets to their most trusted sources in advance of the embargo date, which meant their stories were ready to be published that very day. In the days immediately following, we received the big media splash we had hoped for.
Journalists who cover outdoor sports, running, and skiing all published stories, as did our industry trade media. But we also had coverage from environmental publications and blogs, as well as mainstream magazines, newspapers, and websites. The most exciting stories were on FastCompany.com and Forbes.com. In addition to having a huge reach, they also have readers outside the scope of our normal audience, exposing the brand to new people. In total, we had more than 100 stories written specifically about the Index.01 running shoe, and they are still coming.
On social media, it was one of our most engaging stories ever, with loads of comments on every post we made, nearly all of them positive. The day after unveiling the shoe, we reserved time with our product and sustainability experts to respond to interview requests and to answer questions from our social media followers (even the negative ones). Replying quickly on social media leaves such a positive feeling with the community and shows transparency on behalf of the brand.
The Index.01 will hit the market in the spring of next year, so there is plenty left to do to continue the conversation until then. That’s the challenge of unveiling a product so early.
The middle of a global pandemic wasn’t the easiest time to plan a product unveiling—without a product to sell, no less—but it sure was fun, and it made lockdown go by more quickly. One of the best parts of working in a modern global communications role is that my job touches so many parts of the organization. In fact, the collaborative nature of revealing the Index.01 running shoe was the best part of the experience, and success is a lot more enjoyable when it is shared. Our footwear product team, our sustainability experts, the digital team, marketing managers in our local markets, PR agencies around the world, and even our friends in the media who supported us by telling this story to their audience—everyone played a role, many with kids running around the house behind them during online meetings. It will be extra gratifying to go for a run in my recyclable running shoes when I get my hands on a pair this spring.