More than half the participants in the 2011 New York marathon are believed to have worn a particular brand of running shoe distinguished by a crossed “tiger stripes” pattern.
As popular and recognizable as the shoe seems to be, the dilemma for the company that makes them (and this is according to the company itself), is that few of those runners would be able to tell you the brand name of the shoe is ‘Asics’.
They were known originally as ‘Onitsuka Tiger’, Onitsuka being a reference to Kihachiro Onitsuka, the man who founded his namesake Onitsuka Company in Kobe, Japan in 1949.
According to this remarkable video in which he tells the story of the company, Onitsuka’s inspiration for making sports shoes came from a piece of octopus he found stuck to the bottom of a dish. The suction pad design would be ideal for athletes, he thought, such as basketball players who need soles that grip.
The first Onitsuka basketball shoes in Japan had a tiger face design on the arch of the foot and this became the company’s trademark. Onitsuka Tiger shoes, as they became known, were put on the international map in the 1960s with the introduction of the Mexico 66 – the shoe that featured the now famous crossed stripes design for the first time.
In 1977, Onitsuka merged his company with fishing and sporting goods company GTO and athletic uniform maker JELENK to form ‘ASICS’ – an acronym of Anima Sana In Corpore Sano, a Latin phrase which expresses the ancient ideal of “a sound mind in a sound body”.
This somewhat esoteric acronym has been formalized over the last few years into the name ‘Asics’ and the Latin phrase upon which it was based has been boiled down to “Sound Mind, Sound Body”.
The problem for Asics is that the name is little known and less understood. The company is much smaller than rivals Nike and Adidas. For 2011, Asics had sales of about $3.03 billion; Nike and Adidas have sales of $20.86 billion and $15.82 billion, respectively.
Then there’s the pronunciation issue: in the U.S. the A is stressed, as in ‘AY-sics’. The rest of the world says ‘AH-sics’.
Asics intends to correct its awareness problem with an advertising campaign in Europe this Olympic year. The advertising campaign aims to stress Asics’ credentials as the footwear for serious sports performance, rather than trying to embrace both the serious sports market and the broader lifestyle sector. Asics has quietly resurrected the Onitsuka Tiger brand for the lifestyle market with original models of Onitsuka shoes and added a clothing and bags line of products.
A “Made of Sport” media campaign will target sports fanatics with the Asics brand.
I can’t help thinking that Asics is missing something: awareness is just part of the problem. Asics needs a brand story. The “Made of Sport” campaign is uniquely uninspiring and does nothing to build the Asics brand. Given the company’s limited resources, the rich heritage of the Onitsuka Tiger brand and the beautiful story of Kihachiro Onitsuka and his vision, I know where I’d put my money.