New York (CNN) — Shoes designed to mimic the sensation of running barefoot used to be the hottest phenomenon in fitness. Now the opposite is true. The ugliest, chunkiest sneaker brand is flying off the shelves.
Starting out in 2009 in France as a shoe for marathon runners, Hoka is rapidly growing among casual runners, hikers, and weightlifters. The brand, which sells ultra-cushioned shoes $125 and up, has also become a fashion icon outside of fitness. Hoka appeals to consumers looking for everyday walking shoes, and have been seen among celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow and Emily Ratajkowski.
“This is the antithesis of the minimalist shoe. It’s the ultimate amount of comfort,” said John Fisher, former Saucony CEO and currently a senior professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “They take comfort and translate it into the deepest midsole and outsole depth on the market.”
Hoka, owned by Deckers, the company behind the Ugg and Teva shoe brands, achieved $892 million in sales in 2021, an increase of 5% over the previous year. On Thursday, when Deckers releases sales for 2022, the brand is expected to announce that Hoka’s revenue has surpassed $1 billion.
Hoka’s growth reflects a careful expansion strategy, with consumers prioritizing casual, comfortable clothing that they can wear to exercise, work, and wear throughout the day.
“They were able to successfully update the ‘dad shoe’ or the ‘ugly shoe'” by investing in the functional benefits of the shoe, said Elizabeth Semmelhack, director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
It is an unexpected success story.
When Deckers bought Hoka in 2012, the brand had just over $2 million in sales. No one outside of the elite runners had heard of Hoka.
Hoka, with his bulky appearance and oversized soles, was an outlier in sneaker shops filled with slim, lightweight sneakers influenced by major apparel companies.
At that time, the so-called minimalist sneakers were gaining popularity. In 2005, Nike launched its Nike Free line, which sparked a wave of similar versions from rivals.
“There were a lot of brands trying to emulate that look,” said Jay Sole, a retail analyst at UBS. “There was no one doing what Hoka was doing.”
But Hoka carved out a niche for himself in specialty runner stores.
He’s built a strong reputation among ultramarathon runners who choose shoes they believe will help prevent injuries, Sole said. Many long-distance runners are more concerned with performance than style or brand, she noted.
Hoka’s bulky silhouette helped her stand out from the marathon runners.
“That chunky heel tells people, ‘That’s the shoe I can wear to run long distances and not hurt myself,’” Sole said.
As the Hoka became popular with marathon runners, more casual runners began to see them in the wild and opted to purchase the shoes. The brand tapped into its broader appeal by adding shoes for running, walking, weight lifting, and walking.
It also expanded its wholesale customers, moving into major shoe and sporting goods chains like Dick’s Sporting Goods, REI and Zappos.
By 2019, Hoka’s sales exceeded $220 million. A year later, they reached US$350 million.
To continue growing, Hoka plans to launch new products more frequently, including clothing, and open independent retail stores to introduce the brand to customers who have never heard of it.
“We don’t see this as a running brand,” Deckers CEO David Powers said in October. “This is a running/hiking/walking brand that’s more like North Face” than Brooks running shoes.
But it’s unlikely that Hoka will ever expand into mass retailers like Walmart or Amazon and risk giving up its premium pricing and brand positioning.
“Brands are careful not to give up a premium position,” Sole said. “The risk in that is that it can hurt prices.”