The rapid rise of HOKA – and what we can learn from it

I visited the HOKA store in Covent Garden the other day – and it was an eye-opening experience. This is a brand which is riding a wave of success, built by a dedication to its own identity and an ability to speak to the trends of the moment and, most importantly, what shoppers really want.

For the unaware, HOKA is a brand that achieved $2.2 million in revenue in 2012, growing to $153 million in 2018, and $1.4 billion in 2023. Today, it has become a significant player in the athletic footwear market. It was founded in 2009 in France by two former Salomon employees, who started with trail running shoes inspired by the large tires of mountain bikes. These shoes featured oversized midsole cushioning and a wide design, thereby providing a stark contrast to the minimalist trend of the time. HOKA gained appreciation in ultramarathons and quickly became a favourite among runners. Its impact was great enough, that in 2012 Deckers Brands acquired the company.

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From a branding and identity point of view, HOKA is truly excellent. The name HOKA means “to fly” (over the earth/ground) in Maori. Initially, the brand’s narrative concept was represented by a three-word Maori phrase, which was later shortened to HOKA for simplicity. The logo reflects the idea of “flying” through the silhouette of a bird integrated into the blue HOKA text.

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But the success of this brand, and a number of other thriving emerging brands, is tied to their ability to tap into and capitalise on a number of key factors in the market today.

Comfort Everywhere: Over the past decade, there has been a significant shift in the perception of sports shoes, which are now considered socially acceptable in smart casual settings. This trend towards comfortable clothing was solidified during the pandemic and today it’s not uncommon to see executives in jeans and sneakers. However, this means that sneakers must offer more in terms of personality and what they say, than the traditional big players often do.

Are Nike and Adidas Resting on Their Laurels? Speaking of those traditional big players, while Nike and Adidas are giants compared to HOKA, they have been losing market share in recent years. In many cases, not just in the sneaker market, big brands have been guilty of overlooking the growth of new players. Emerging contenders, such as HOKA are also more dynamic and can innovate at pace with the trends and demands of shoppers. Big players sometimes seem to struggle to keep up, with innovation in the wrong areas.

I Buy, Therefore I Am: The identity dimension of consumption is well-known, and people express themselves through brands. This new wave of emerging brands has captured this demand with products that combine performance, comfort, and lifestyle, along with a value system that resonates with consumers. HOKA is a great example of doing this; the brand is clear in its own identity and that of its shoppers. By leveraging both in a clear way, it creates instant connection.

Sneaker Aesthetics Are Being Reshaped: The rules are not what they once were. People are tired of the usual sneakers from the usual brands; they crave new brands and shoes with personality and comfort. Even if they look like “clown shoes,” as HOKA shoes have been called in the past, “ugliness” is not a problem when a product is charismatic, as seen with Birkenstock and Crocs.

All of this underlines a truth which myself and others have been highlighting for a long time: Even market leaders must continually innovate to maintain relevance and resonance. There are no truly saturated sectors and product categories. It is possible to make any product contemporary and attractive by reinterpreting its philosophy and embracing the spirit of the times – and that is something we can all build on.