Shoe Month: Street-savvy Ecco aims to build on success

Fred Couples wears Ecco shoes as one of its product endorsers.
Fred Couples wears Ecco shoes as one of its product endorsers. ( Getty Images )

Monday, September 24, 2012

The golf division of Ecco, a premium-shoe manufacturer based in Denmark, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

But for many American golfers, at least, the brand wasn't necessarily a leader in "mindshare" – even though its among the top golf footwear companies in actual market share.

"We are not a marketing company," Jesper Thuen, Ecco's global manager for golf, says matter-of-factly. "We are first and foremost a shoe company. A multi-million dollar advertising campaign is not in our plans."

It may not have sought a higher profile, but Ecco got one anyway two years ago. That's when company endorser Fred Couples took a stroll along Augusta National's fairways in the 2010 Masters and rocketed the company's fortunes. Before a global TV audience, Couples, in his ever-so-cool saunter, showcased a most unconventional shoe: The casual-looking Ecco Street Premiere, featuring a rubber outsole with molded traction bars, but not a single, replaceable cleat.

Ecco doesn't disclose financial data for specific shoes, but Thuen recalls, in the week following the tournament, "We could have written orders for hundreds of thousands of pairs." But Ecco couldn't because its inventory had been depleted, wiped out by demand from around the world.

The Street was so popular even competitors credit it for creating an entire new category of footwear – the so-called hybrids, which have the versatility to be worn on- or off-course.

Hybrid shoes, in turn, have fueled broader interest in the development of other types of alternative-traction footwear, meaning durable rubber treads or nubs in lieu of replaceable cleats and receptacles. The reasons for the shift are many: Golfers often complain of discomfort because they can feel the receptacles against the bottoms of their feet. Many golfers frankly don't bother to replace cleats. And, it's becoming increasingly evident that they like the convenience of wearing a single pair of shoes to play golf and lounge in afterward.

In about five years, Thuen goes as far as predicting that more than 75 percent of all golf shoes sold will be models without replaceable cleats.

"We believe the same type of transition that took place from steel spikes to plastic ones will happen, especially when (golfers) find out they have more than enough traction (with molded rubber outsoles)," he says.

The issue of whether golfers can gain sufficient traction without spikes is a contentious one. Thuen emphasizes that all alternative-traction, rubber soles aren't the same – nor are they equally effective. But he insists the patented Street outsole "provides enough grip for any golfer, be it an elite tour player or beginner."

According to Ecco, the Street outsole is made from the same material, TPU, as replaceable cleats. It features dozens of molded traction bars on each shoe with hundreds of traction angles, designed to provide traction during the swing or when walking.

Thuen acknowledges that Couples initially worried about slipping, too. But he says the player's concerns have been allayed, citing Couples' decision to wear Ecco's Biom Hybrid – a new shoe that also features the Street outsole – during rough, wet conditions at this year's Senior Open Championship at Turnberry, which he won.

Though it'll be difficult to duplicate the success achieved by the Street shoe, Ecco is counting on the Biom Hybrid and the Tour Hybrid to deliver a strong encore.

The Biom Hybrid follows Ecco's first "natural-motion" golf shoe that was designed to let feet move and absorb impact as naturally as possible, in essence, letting them function as if they were barefoot. Recent studies emanating from the sport of running indicate such movement delivers better performance and fewer injuries. Now, several golf companies are applying the concept to their sport. The latest Biom model gains off-course versatility with its pairing with the Street outsole.

Likewise, The Tour Hybrid offers versatility, but sheds hybrids' typical casual look for classic, golf shoe styling, including a wingtip version. Ecco officials say the shoe's refined appearance allows a golfer to go from the office to the links to a night out on the town.

The Biom Hybrid and the Tour Hybrid, which become available at retail in October and November, respectively, each costs $190. Ecco's average retail price is among the highest in the industry, but Thuen offers an explanation predicated by the company's mission. He maintains Ecco isn't driven by an obsession to sell more units in a never-ending chase for greater market share.

Rather than design shoes to accommodate a more-affordable price point, Thuen says, "We like to go with our own ideas and keep surprising the market. Our shoes will cost, what they cost. We will be premium."