There's a powerhouse brewing in the NBA sneaker scene. A brand that hasn't been considered a player in the spectrum since the '80s has made a calculated return and is establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. Nothing about New Balance's return to the basketball has been conventional and that just means everything is going according to plan.
For those on the outside looking in, New Balance Basketball reintroduced themselves to the NBA during All-Star Weekend a year ago. That's when Kawhi Leonard - a bona fide game-changer and one of the league's biggest stars - debuted his signature shoe, the New Balance OMN1S.
But the work to bring New Balance back into the basketball world, and do it in a way that sets a lasting impression had been going on behind the scenes long before Leonard laced up his first sneaker with an oversized "N" on the ankle.
"It's been a long time in the making," said Patrick Cassidy, Global Marketing Director of Consumer and Athlete Activation at New Balance. "Even though the first thing people saw from New Balance Basketball officially was last year's All-Star Game the planning has been in the works now for over three years."
The years of planning for such a massive move isn't what makes New Balance's return to basketball extraordinary. The essence of the plan is what sets them apart. New Balance assessed the market and its competitors and strategized not what to take away from the competition, but rather what doesn't the competition do that they can.
"Before we even had a shoe designed, even sketches on paper, athletes or anything like that," Cassidy said." Before we had any kind of basketball business it was years of strategy building and discussion on how to do this the right way and for us the right way is a highly differentiated approach that's going to keep us in the category for a long time."
Being different was the starting point. And that's what made the relationship with Leonard so seamless. When Leonard parted ways with Jordan Brand, some wondered how he would fit as a signature star with a major brand. He isn't your prototypical modern athlete in the sense that the limelight and attention doesn't do much for him.
What major brand could look at Leonard's introverted personality and see the star of a marketing campaign? Only a brand that wanted to be different than those already in the game.
"The things that make him different from all of those around him and, arguably, every other player in the NBA are the things that are all massive positives for us in building our partnership with him," Cassidy said. "The fact that he's so different, does not feel the need to be on social media, does not feel the need to follow what everybody else does, makes his own decisions, has a distinct point of view on product and design. These are all positive things, there are really no setbacks."
New Balance brought Leonard on as the star that would help build a foundation for years to come. But in order for that to be successful it was time to let the work do the talking … in a way.
In a full 30-second promo for Leonard, his signature New Balance kicks and his new home in Los Angeles, the brand managed to relay a message about who he is, why the sneakers are the next wave and make it clear they're all on the same page when it comes to taking over in LA with the Clippers.
That's a helluva job in 30 seconds. What else is impressive? Leonard's rundown for the entire stretch consisted of everything BUT talking. The face of the brand didn't need to say a word.
"Just because he's the face of New Balance basketball doesn't mean he's going to turn into a comedian on Twitter overnight. So much can be said without saying anything. We're not going to try and change Kawhi," Cassidy said. "I like to think that those notes are coming through in any of the marketing that you've seen with us around him. We're showing how he's different from any other player in the NBA and now we're really leaning into what his voice and vision are."