It wasn't long ago that New Balance faced scrutiny online for monetary donations made by one of its chairmen, Jim Davis, to a group alleged to have backed former President Donald Trump during the 2016 election. After a few fringe websites proclaimed New Balance as the "official sneaker of white people everywhere," the brand fought back — but the controversy doubled down.
The supposed synergy between the bullish leader and the American-made sneaker brand triggered boycotts — one called #GrabYourWallet targeted Wegmans, L.L. Bean and New Balance — and called New Balance's commitment to all races, colors and creeds into question. In response, New Balance put out a statement decrying the nature of its relationship to the President and his penchant for crass language — especially when it concerned minorities, immigrants, disabled folks or the LGBTQIA+ community.
"New Balance does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form," the statement read. "As a 110-year-old company with five factories in the U.S. and thousands of employees worldwide from all races, genders, cultures and sexual orientations, New Balance is a values-driven organization and culture that believes in humanity, integrity, community and mutual respect for people around the world."
At the time, this read like a game of money-saving Mad Libs. However, since then, New Balance has embarked on a mission to overhaul its operations, centering diverse designers, minority New Balance employees and underrepresented consumers in the process.
How? By taking action, primarily through collaborations and committing product inventory to non-profits — but also creating an internal collective for Black employees called the Black Soles.
Collaborations are also what helped New Balance gain industry cred, transforming its public image from a dad-friendly performance brand into a bonafide footwear design giant. Projects with sneaker designer Salehe Bembury, streetwear designer Joe Freshgoods, musician and actor Jaden Smith, NBA agent Rich Paul, No Vacancy Inn's Tremaine Emory and Casablanca's Charaf Tajer resulted in a roster of collaborators even Nike and Adidas struggled to rival.
Sure, these are not big names per se — Nike works with Drake and Travis Scott, and Adidas hosts Kanye West's Yeezy label — but they're emerging talents in their respective industries. This diversity, New Balance learned, became a catalyst for brand growth, because as far as streetwear goes, New Balance is still, well, new to it.
"As an organization, we always strive to be the best versus the biggest," chief marketing officer Chris Davis tells Gear Patrol, "and I think that serves as the impetus for a lot of the actions that we take and the products that we make."
A lot of the aforementioned collaborations were years in the making, Davis adds, explaining that getting in on the ground level with these creatives is key to creating an authentic partnership and, in turn, impressive products. Sure, they could churn out novelty releases with partners like food brands or TV shows, but less is always more, he says.
"One thing that we always try to do is ensure that all of our partnerships are a reflection of our values as a brand," Davis says. "Everything begins with a co-authored approach across product, content and strategy."
This level of commitment to its collaborators opens the door for designers like Joe Freshgoods to create comprehensive campaigns to support his apparel and footwear releases. His Conversations Amongst Us collab received this treatment, a joint effort Freshgoods, a.k.a. Joe Robinson called "a timestamp and a deep dive into the importance of communication and community."
He worked with New Balance's internal collective for Black employees, the Black Soles, on every step of the sneaker's production — from designing them to imagining their packaging to crafting the adverts published in support of their release. These videos, of which there are two (one starring Kawhi Leonard and another with Storm Reid), center the Black experience — whether it's instances of improper pronunciation or being overlooked for an open position or role.
There are product placements, for sure, as well as plenty of closeups of the Conversations Amongst Us apparel and footwear, but it feels different from most other advertorial videos. These were clearly scripted, directed and executed by Black talent — including Black Soles members and associate product managers Jordan Johnson and Kevin Trotman.
"I wanted to approach this from a different lens from how brands usually celebrate and spotlight Black people," Freshgoods says of the release's auxiliary parts. "Conversations Amongst Us isn't a marketing blurb, it's simply the truth."
For Davis, the concept was easy to green light. "If you're creating collaborations or designing these types of partnerships in a way that's purely commercial or for purely hype purposes, that's a dangerous path to go down," he says. "It always has to be something that's authentic and honest and capable of communicating an actual story to the market. We always try to lead with the story versus leading with the product."
This isn't the only release that featured a bit of world-building before the official drop. NBA agent Rich Paul's unexpected sneaker came with an inspirational short about his path from unsure Cleveland-born kid to CEO of his own agency, Klutch Sports. It's typically the players that get shoe deals, but Paul hopes his opens avenues for future generations.
"Growing up, sports and music were the examples of who you looked up to. I didn’t know of a sports agent that looked like me," he said on release day. "I hope this collaboration with New Balance shows kids what is possible through hard work and believing in yourself."
When a product finally reaches the consumer, both parties (New Balance and the collaborator) assess its success and plant the seed for future projects — whether that's a new colorway of the same silhouette or an entirely new design. Either way, they stay in contact, creating a kind of quasi-Avengers-cast of collaborators that promote the brand even when there's no inventory left to sell. (New Balance is more popular than ever. As such, its releases always sell out.)
"It all starts with initially having conversations, getting to know them over a period of time and understanding what it might look like if we worked together. It's like building a relationship," Brian Lynn, New Balance's global general manager of lifestyle, says. "We're a family run business and these partners are now a part of that family... We've grown together, which is the exciting thing."
And succeeded together, too, considering New Balance sneakers topped most of the year-end best sneaker roundups for 2022. Joe Freshgoods' designs were a consensus "yes," but so too were Salehe Bembury's. It's a stark contrast, you see, especially as an insider. There were never New Balance sneakers on these lists before, but, now, they're a mainstay.