The ASICS COO on increasing the brand’s footprint in India, and incorporating technology to increase the efficiency of the runner
Yasuhito Hirota timed his second visit to India as president and chief operating officer of ASICS with the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) held on 19 January—the shoe brand was a sponsoring partner. After spending nearly 40 years with Mitsubishi Corp., till he joined ASICS two years ago, Hirota’s mandate is to further globalize the sporting brand, and that includes increasing its footprint in India.
Fresh after a run on Marine Drive, Hirota talks about the shoe company that is closely associated with the sport of running.
At a time when Nike’s Vaporfly shoe is boosting running time—Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub-2-hour marathon last year though it has not been recognized by the world athletics body—Hirota talked about technology and sustainability in shoes. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How does associating with an event like the Mumbai Marathon help ASICS?
By supporting a big event, we can expand our brand image and also connect with people who cheer the runners. It is not tangible but the intangible asset is very important in those kinds of events.
What was your mandate when you took over at ASICS, especially for the India market?
More globalization. We are the third biggest company in the sporting goods area, behind Nike and Adidas. Our company philosophy is “sound body, sound mind". Using sporting technology, we would like to get people happier, healthier and I would like to achieve that.
How significant is this India market, given that you were relatively late entrants here?
We have been able to catch up. We have to, I ask him (pointing to Rajat Khurana, managing director, India operations) to catch up. Marketing is important to let people know the name of ASICS. We spend 10% of our revenue on marketing. Globally, we are close to being a $4 billion (around ₹29,516 crore) company but the India share is quite small.
You enjoy a 20% growth every year in the sporting field here. I ran this morning with Rajat on the seashore and found so many people were running. People want to be healthy and that is a big opportunity to get into this big market. Through technology, we would like to provide customers shoes in which you can run more safely and enjoy sport. We are a health-related company.
ASICS is associated predominantly with running…
Running is a big segment for our business (over 60% of their business in India is from it). Globally, we are focused on track and field, tennis and indoor sports. Each region has a character. For example, in India, it’s cricket and wrestling. We focus on those fields, besides growing tennis and table tennis. I like the safety aspect of our shoes. Injury is inevitable, but if your gear is good, the chances of injury are less.
Nike and Adidas have a stronger brand presence here because of a longer association. How do you compete with that?
We have started our brand strongly. We have 44 stores across 28 tier 1 and tier 2 cities. We would like to expand those numbers by 17-20 this year. We add 12-14 stores every year—that’s one-and-a-half stores every month. We started our first store in 2015 and within a span of over three years, we also have five stores for our lifestyle brand and one factory outlet. We have expanded to Sri Lanka. India remains a key market for ASICS because of the rising numbers, the rapid urbanization, a growing middle-class income, people getting health conscious, and more marathons being run.
What are your expansion plans, and for India?
We want to bring new technologies to India. I was in Las Vegas from 6-10 January at the CES 2020, where we launched the new technology shoe—it has a sensor, which is one step ahead. That technology, once launched globally and in India, would support athletes in a better way.
You can run easily and safely with the (smart) shoes (the company has no plans for a launch in India yet).The sole, it automatically gives you bounce and stability. The shoe has a sensor that tells the runner how much energy he lands with, how much is your stride length, etc. We want to incorporate technology to increase the efficiency of the runner. We have collaborated with a Japanese company, NNF, to bring this kind of technology in the shoe.
Athleisure is also a growing segment now…
Globally, it’s growing exponentially. But the core is running. With the growth of sportswear, we want runners to look good. Particularly the young generation that wants colour. Gone are the days when we used to have commercial blue and white colours only.
What are some of the innovations we can expect in shoes?
One is personalization. We provide shoes or apparel (designed) for you. Second is sustainability, using eco-friendly material. For example, we are sponsors at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and we provided 120,000 volunteers with apparel made of material which is 100% recycled. We are aiming to launch 100% recycled shoes. Third is digital. We get data—we can access individually what type of gait you have, for instance. Every runner has a different gait. Some people land on their heel, others on the mid-foot, while some people turn inward. The data about energy and stride length will give you the exact point where your technique needs to be improved.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.