If you’re launching a luxury footwear brand, you’re going to be on the hunt for great product reviews. Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL) received just that when the NBA banned their shoes at the outset of the 2010-2011 season for offering players an “undue competitive advantage.” Their shoes were simply too good.
APL's response wasn't to shy away—instead, the team decided that having a shoe that was too good wasn’t good enough. Rather than resting on shock-publicity laurels, founders Adam and Ryan Goldston doubled down on creating a brand culture that was “way too good” in every way.
From design to functionality to customer service and social media, APL is proof that the best defense in a crowded marketplace just might be a solid offense built around delighting everyone in a brand—inside and out.
Building a Communication-Centric Brand Playbook
“We try to bring joy through our product, from the people in our company to our customers,” says co-founder Adam Goldston. “Everybody at the company feels that happiness, joy and fun. Those are key principles for us internally and that reflects in how we communicate with our brand supporters and the products we create."
For many brands, especially upscale brands, communicating with customers is a luxury. The aloofness and hard-to-reach feeling of these brands make customers strive to belong, and luxury brands traffic in exclusivity. For APL, a self-designated “digital native” brand in the thriving upscale athleisure market, however, communication is a necessity.
“The greatest luxury anyone has is time,” says Goldston. “If someone feels you’re invested in them, respect the time they took to reach out, that’s the real luxury experience for someone following a brand.”
From the outset, APL has responded to every comment across social media channels from day one. There are only two kinds of comments across their channels: ones they’ve responded to and ones they can’t wait to craft a response to. And to be clear, it’s not just existing customers who receive a response. It’s everyone.
“We communicate with everyone who’s supporting our brand, including people who may not have their first brand of APLs yet,” says Goldston. Goldston admits few in the APL family bought into the “respond to everyone” strategy at the brand’s humble beginnings. Yet today, it’s impossible to think of APL without its commitment to communication.
“I’ve always thought that one of the best strategies out there is compounding, and you do that by doing things consistently over a long period of time,” he says.
APL’s longstanding investment in communication kept paying dividends and led to another high-payoff offensive strategy: listening.
Turning Up the Volume of Feedback
“One of the things that really differentiates us is we do a lot of listening,” says Goldston. “We know a great idea can come from anywhere.”
Whether through social channels or APL’s carefully curated roster of brand influencers, feedback is essential to helping the brand meet their customers where they’re at. During the current COVID-19 crisis, listening has arguably become one of the company's leading brand equity and revenue models.
First, APL’s influencer network is largely made up of fitness professionals. That means a significant portion of their influencer base had gyms and studios close and needed a way to keep doing what they love.
Over the course of a few weeks, APL’s followers on social kept asking about ideal at-home workouts—did APL have any suggestions? APL knew it was time to activate their influencer network. This led to APL partnering with their influencers to create an at-home workout program. “Our influencers had content, and they needed help distributing that expertise,” says Goldston. Now, APL can continue its investment in health and wellness and meet socially- and physical activity-starved brand fans at the point of frustration, and offer relief through online workouts.
Next, COVID brought about another change in its revenue model. With gyms closed and physical and social activities curtailed, athletic shoe sales slowed. Yet APL’s commitment to listening created a shift in marketing that the brand never saw coming.
Pre-COVID, APL's slides were a minor part of their sales. With everyone working from home and switching to a much more casual life, demand for their easy-to-wear slides and requests for new designs and models skyrocketed.
Now, APL offers two full web pages of slides in a myriad of colors and textures to suit all moods. They recently launched a full-leather slide and one made of plush shearling in addition to their sportier designs. Goldston isn’t shy about giving the brand fans a nod for helping push APL to new heights.
“The greatest leaders are the best listeners,” he says. “You just need to pay attention.”
The Next Play
Despite being a digitally native brand, APL ventured into its first flagship store at The Grove in the heart of Los Angeles’ Fairfax District in December of 2020. It was a big leap—translating their online brand into an in-person experience that measured up to their existing culture. If APL was worried, they didn’t have to be.
“For the grand opening, we thought maybe 500 people would show up,” says Goldston. “We invited maybe 250 people—friends, family and true brand fans. Over 5,500 people showed up.”
While that in-person experience has had its bumps with COVID-related store closures, Goldston remarks that their flagship boutique was virtually made for COVID restrictions. With 31-foot ceilings and a deep storefront, Goldston says the customer gets an even better brand experience with fewer people in the store. Not surprising, with APL’s commitment to communication and personal interactions.
One of the things that really differentiates us is we do a lot of listening. [...] We know a great idea can come from anywhere
—Adam Goldston, co-founder, Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL)
As for what’s ahead, Goldston says it’s a focus on becoming a global leader in luxury athletic footwear—and having fun doing it. That includes getting into new markets, creating new products and keeping their customers excited, no matter what the world outside their front door looks like.
“I know that might not be the sexy answer, but we created this company from an idea we had over 11 years ago,” he says. “But we’re focused on perpetuating good feelings inside and outside of the company.”
For Goldston, that means helping APL’s customers express themselves through their products—from vibrant colors and hip styles to a continued flow of new designs—versus focusing on nuanced company milestones such as exacting sales goals or traditional KPI metrics. “If you’re only focused on specific milestones, you’re probably not going to be happy when you don’t hit them,” he says.
APL’s culture focuses on joy—the joy of movement, community, and the joy that comes from helping their customers find joy through movement. And perhaps that’s the “sexiest” thing of all about Goldston’s drive to make APL a global leader, because he knows they’ll only be a global leader by continuing to invest in communication, listening and collaboration.
Instead of treating those actions like luxuries, they’re business as usual and the best defense for a brand on the offense—and one redefining what “luxury” truly is in the marketplace.
Photo: Athletic Propulsion Labs