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In a Crowded Activewear Space, Tracksmith Is Preserving Running's Rich Legacy

This understated, direct-to-consumer label is a runners' running brand in the truest sense.
Photo: Courtesy of Tracksmith

Photo: Courtesy of Tracksmith

The last time we checked in on Tracksmith, it was August of 2015 and the understated, direct-to-consumer running brand had just raised $4.1 million in a Series A round of funding. As is so often the case with smart, hungry start-ups, Tracksmith has grown tremendously over the past 12 months, both in product offering and in name recognition. But no matter how quickly it's expanded thus far, you'd be hard-pressed to find a brand more tirelessly committed to its core customer.

Unlike other activewear brands that juggle multiple categories of sport, Tracksmith focuses on just one — competitive running — and that isn't going to change anytime soon. Seriously. It's what the entire company is founded on. "Ultimately, we're building a true running lifestyle brand," Tracksmith founder and CEO (and longtime runner) Matt Taylor told me over the phone from the company's office in Boston. "And long-term, we want to have a role in anything that someone who is committed to running wants or needs." Taylor, who cut his teeth as the head of global marketing for the running and training categories at Puma, thought to launch Tracksmith when he found that no one brand in the marketplace was offering simple products that actually did their job for training and competition.

Tracksmith banks much of its marketing magic on the "New England experience," which, aesthetically, translates to familiar, slightly retro silhouettes and classic colors. But we can just as easily attribute much of the brand's initial success to everything it offers outside of product. Not only does it produce a quarterly runner's magazine called Meter (with its sixth issue due out this fall), but it offers store credit to racers who beat their personal records while wearing Tracksmith gear. The community is already there, and it wants more.

How, exactly, is Tracksmith doing all this and still coming across as genuinely authentic, and how is it creating and harnessing a (literally ancient) pastime? I had Taylor break it down. Read on for highlights from our conversation.

When Tracksmith launched two years ago, what was happening in the market that made you feel like it would resonate?
I've been a runner my entire life. I ran all through high school and college, and I still run a lot today. I've worked in the industry as well, starting right out of college. From a participation standpoint, I've been on that side of the sport for a very long time; from the industry side, I've been involved for 15 years now.

I always wanted to do something entrepreneurial. Both as a consumer and someone working in the industry, there was this growing frustration with where things were headed. I saw there was a large void that was left open. Although running is a massive industry, there was a pattern I observed going all the way back to Puma and Adidas when they first started out in the '30s and '40s — and all the way through Nike and then Asics, and now Brooks and Saucony — of [putting] an emphasis on the core culture of the sport. As those brands grew, their messaging either became much more watered down into general health and fitness, or they started to venture into other sports. Every time that happened, starting with Puma and Adidas, a new brand was able to come in, fill that void and grow from there on out.

Why did you first launch with men's apparel?
That was a very strategic decision. I did a lot of research around everything within running, so I looked at the event space, at the media space, at apparel, footwear and accessories. If you looked at the industry, men's apparel was this outlier. It didn't get a lot of resources; it was at the bottom of the totem pole. Footwear has always been king at these brands, and the women's apparel space was highly competitive because of Lululemon's rise. With men's apparel, we had an opportunity to come in and do something very distinct. But the vision for Tracksmith has always been much larger. We launched women's apparel around nine months after launching the brand.

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What is it about running that differentiates itself enough to warrant a dedicated line?
Running is the oldest, most accessible sport in the world. It's one of the very few things that is done literally everywhere. You don't even need a pair of shoes! People [have won] Olympic gold medals running barefoot. And there's great storytelling; there's great education; there's great inspiration and motivation that can be mined from it and brought to a more contemporary place.

What about technically? What goes into Tracksmith's apparel that makes it performance-ready?
You could easily run in products designed for yoga. You could even [do it] in a pair of basketball shorts. But there are times when there are very specific functional requirements that are unique to running. First, [we focus on] well-crafted, high-quality garments [that have] a very distinct aesthetic, which are then made for specific purposes. Our Grayboy T-shirt is a cotton-rayon blend. It's the antithesis of technology in the textile world. But if you're running for 40 minutes in moderate temperatures, a cotton T-shirt is absolutely fine. The great thing about cotton is it wears in instead of out. You can wash it hundreds of times. It doesn't retain odor. No one hands down dry-fit T-shirts to their kids. People hand down their team-issued cotton T-shirts because they're super durable; they get better with age.

We just launched the Run Cannonball Run short, which was designed for a very specific summertime running tradition: jumping in a body of water somewhere along your run and then running back home. We made a pair of shorts that were designed specifically for that purpose. They're quick-drying with hydrophobic yarn, so the water sheds off and as you start running, they dry extremely quickly.

You're based in Boston and much of your branding touches on the "New England experience." Why was it important to incorporate that into Tracksmith?
New England — and Boston, specifically — has a special place in running culture. It's the heart and soul of the global running community in a lot of ways. The Boston Marathon is still this revered event; some of the best athletes in the world have lived and trained in Boston. There are so many great universities in New England where running traditions run very deep. Our office is literally located at the halfway point of the Boston Marathon. There's this great history and legacy that exists in New England.

From an aesthetic perspective, it's very understated, very timeless and classic. There's also a much longer-term outlook on things. When you wrap everything in this New England-as-home context, it lends itself really well to our emphasis on community and the culture of the sport. Hopefully 30 years down the road, you'll look at product from our first few years and it won't feel out of place. Rather than always trying to be at the front end of fashion trends, we can make something that can be consistent, wearable, easy to buy and easy to understand.

There's been much made about the recent surge of brand loyalty among consumers. Do you think it's important for an apparel company to offer more than just clothes in 2016?
A lot of people will talk about the Internet and what digital has done, but at the end of the day, I think good retail will win and bad retail won't. I feel like the fundamentals haven't changed — it's just that some of the delivery mechanisms and channels have. Brands that don't have a bunch of stores have to find other opportunities to offer a broader experience for the customer. Customer experience has become quite cliché, but it's reality. People want to feel connected to the brand in a way beyond just a purchase. We certainly look at content and community as two really important ways for us to give people a bit more to bite onto.

What goes into each issue of your print publication, Meter?
It's a lot of the things that we, as consumers, wanted, but didn't exist. If you look at running, there's just one magazine: Runner's World. Nothing against the way they've built that brand, but there's clearly more stories to be told and in other formats. We wanted a platform to be able to tell much deeper stories that aren't mainstream fitness-related stories. They're stories that [didn't] have a place to be told. 

Tracksmith's PR Bonus seemed like a natural extension of your brand. Why now?
It really is the first of its kind. We reward anyone who runs a personal record. It's not elitist in the sense that it has to be a super-fast time — it just has to be your personal best. It ran all summer and ends Aug. 31. If you're wearing any Tracksmith gear in your PR, you get a $250 bonus in-store credit. It's been phenomenal for us in many ways, both in engagement and chatter. We've seen an uptick in new customer acquisitions. Obviously, we're giving something to existing customers, but we're also hoping that it's an incentive for people to say, "Okay, I'm going to buy this pair of shorts — and if I can PR, then I'm going to be able to buy more."

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