Storytelling for Subcultures: A Running Lifestyle Brand’s Strategy

Matt Taylor is the CEO of Tracksmith, a largely American-made apparel brand for competitive runners that aspires to grow into a full-fledged running lifestyle brand. In this post, he discusses his company’s unique conceptual design process, a marketing strategy rooted in storytelling, why producing local is practical, and the joys and challenges of being a CEO. The company is based in Wellesley, MA.

Origins

I’m a lifelong runner who has worked in the athletic industry for most of my career. Therefore, I’ve been on the consumer and the industry side of running. As someone who has been participating in running events and consuming running media for some time, I saw a big opportunity to do something different and distinct. All the products and marketing tactics in athletics seem very similar, and somewhere in that mix, the sport of running has been lost. The message has been watered down to one of general health and wellness. I created Tracksmith as a brand that prides itself on being very authentic to the competitive running subculture.

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Tracksmith’s models are competitive runners in real life. A Maker’s Row staff member and running aficionado is featured here on the right.

Storytelling

Tracksmith views running as a sport rather than a fitness activity. The way we design our products is different from that of other brands. We’re very conceptual and offer a small product range rather than rushing to design hundreds of styles. Our best products come from a strong story perspective. For example, the Van Cortlandt singlet (unisex) derives from an old nineteenth-century tradition at Cornell in which runners who scored at the league championship partook in a sashing ceremony. The diagonal stripe across the singlet refers back to that tradition. As a team, we nerd out over researching stories like these, and they inspire our products.

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Here, the website narrates the inspiration behind the Concord leggings.

Storytelling is also a big part of our marketing strategy. You can read the inspiration behind each piece on our website, including where it came from and details about the fabric. This approach makes our product pages very different from those on typical e-commerce platforms. We publish a quarterly magazine on topics of relevance to competitive runners in order to drive awareness and interest. And our language and photography is done in a way that’s credible to the subculture. We write about racing and amateurs pursuing excellence in sport (many do so while holding down full-time jobs). We don’t engage in much paid advertising – the majority of our customers have come through word of mouth or our extensive press outreach efforts.

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Tracksmith’s Instagram features inspirational running figures as they perform.

Orchestrating a team

We tend to hire people who are from the running subculture or eager to learn about it. Maybe it’s a self-fulling prophecy. Our company is still small – there are eight of us – so we are able to operate with a very horizontal structure. We have clusters of people in certain areas such as product, customer service, fulfillment, and branding.

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As a first-time CEO, it has been extremely gratifying to make a physical product from concept to design and then witness people buy it and like it. I have the opportunity to actually talk to my customers. At bigger companies, I was never so close to the process from beginning to end. I’ve been able to leverage my breadth of experience in the industry to my advantage. I’ve worked at entrepreneurial and large brands in various capacities such as sports marketing, publishing and writing. My most relevant experience was heading global marketing for running and training at Puma.

There are, of course, a ton of challenges to overcome. Making a physical product is difficult for every company, including the biggest brands. There are always hiccups, and in a small company, one wrong thing amplifies. It’s been a learning process.

Thoughtful production

The original thought in producing local was proximity. We wanted to be able to drive to and sit in the factory alongside our sewers. Our initial manufacturing was done in Massachusetts and New York. Before we begin manufacturing, we put a lot of thought into the material behind each product. It’s fun to explore in search of unique fabrics and trims.

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One of the production facilities.

Each product is designed for a particular story and use case. It has to be functional. For example, the Van Cortlandt singlet is a race piece, so we looked for lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking material. We envision the Grayboy for shorter runs on moderate days that everyone on a team can wear, and so identified an appropriate cotton-rayon blend for that purpose. Even though cotton typically isn’t used for racing pieces, it works for that less intense and shorter duration activity. Although we typically select material based on the story and use case behind product, sometimes we are inspired by a fabric itself. For example, we’re currently exploring waffle knits because of their historic affiliation with warmth.

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Tracksmith links its story to the long human history of competitive running.


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