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Novel idea: Ultimate Direction co-develops products with some of the world’s best ultra-runners

The story of Ultimate Direction‘s recent and anticipated success, centered mostly around its Signature Series running vests, interests me on a number of levels. It’s good for runners, of which I’m one; and it’s good, too, for UD’s brand manager Buzz Burrell, a longtime friend and mentor, as well as the runners involved in the project.

Of equal interest to me is UD’s seemingly novel idea: they asked some of the world’s best ultra-runners exactly what they seek in a running pack, then co-developed the product, and made them the centerpiece of the marketing story. It would seem like an obvious thing to do, as these athletes offer unrivaled product experience and a compelling human story, but it’s rarely been done in the outdoor industry.

I interviewed Buzz to get the inside story on the Signature Series.


SKURKA. What is your role at Ultimate Direction, and how long have you been there?

BUZZ. I was hired as Brand Manager in February of this year.

[Note: The parent company of Ultimate Direction is American Rec, which also owns Kelty and Sierra Designs, among other outdoor brands.]

SKURKA. Before you arrived at Ultimate Direction, what was the state of the brand and why wasn’t it fulfilling its potential?

BUZZ. UD had done nothing wrong, but lacked focus, direction, and innovation. UD invented the entire hydration pack category many years ago, but had “flatlined” for the past 10 years — nothing new was introduced, which is key in the outdoor industry.

SKURKA. What is the Signature Series pack line?

BUZZ. This is very interesting! We partnered with three of the best-known ultra runners in the world — Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek, and Peter Bakwin — and asked them to design the pack they always wanted. Remarkably, they all had three main aspects in common:

  1. The Signature Series are vests, not sacks-with-straps, so they better integrate the contents with the harness into a unified structure;
  2. They have the ability to carry bottles in the front, rather than just a water reservoir in the rear;
  3. The materials had never been seen in hydration packs: Cuben Fiber and ultra lightweight Hex Mesh.

Thus, it really is a “Series” with a unified look and feature set, with three models identified with three athletes. There is a “minimalist” model, a super lightweight model, and a full-featured model.

SKURKA. Why and how did you involve athletes in the development of these packs? How is this different than the way in which most outdoor companies use athletes?

BUZZ. “Sponsorships” are how all outdoor companies engage athletes. The relationship is limited to the company hoping to gain some goodwill by the athlete using their product, in return for free product or some money. We “partnered” with these athletes — we asked them what they really wanted — and then helped them create it for real. And then we put their name on it!

The new Ultra Vest, part of Ultimate Direction’s Signature Series

SKURKA. When will these packs be available? Have you received any early feedback from retailers, media, or consumers?

BUZZ. They became available on Monday. They sold out on our website in a few hours. The other three online retailers are reporting similar interest. I expect strong demand to be mainly expressed online, as there is a core constituency who recognize how unique these products are, and must have them. We’re receiving emails from around the world. I expect brick and mortar sales to be more reasonable, as the average person walking off the street is less concerned with the dramatic feature set and attention to detail.

SKURKA. Do you intend to expand Ultimate Direction’s use of athletes? Do you have any recommendations for other manufacturers who are considering this?

BUZZ. This was an idea whose time had come — the athletes and the market were really ready at the same time for this breakthrough in hydration technology. If we detect a similar huge wave of change building far out to sea, we will paddle out to meet it with everything we have. But I don’t recommend that any other manufacturers do that. 😉

In the meantime, we have a very interesting product launch scheduled for Spring 2014. Rather than a singular breakthrough, this will collect the inspiration of a group of athletes and translate that into a product collection that I think runners will be very happy to see. That’s all I can say!

6 Responses to Novel idea: Ultimate Direction co-develops products with some of the world’s best ultra-runners

  1. Buzz November 28, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    Very good report. You of course, would be the ideal athlete to work with – very strong technical knowledge, outstanding credibility and name recognition in the sport, and possessing an intensely methodical and pro-active approach to all projects. A outdoor company’s should be clamoring to work with you – I look forward to the announcement!

  2. Brett - San Francisco Running Company November 28, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    I’ve had the opportunity to wear the Anton/Race vest a couple times over the past two weeks, including in a race last weekend. You can tell these were designed by athletes, not by in-house designers working off a checklist.

    Just like shoes, there is no perfect bottle for everyone as different runners prefer different ways to carry water/calories (I generally prefer a handheld). That is what is great about these vests, they provide various options without adding much of any weight.. the small race vest w/o bottles or bladder weighs just over 6 ozs on my scale at home.

    Want to carry water in a bladder?.. there is space in the back to do it. Prefer to carry bottles?.. there is space in the front to do it. Need a place for gel wrappers, a bag of salt tabs, car key?.. there are several easily accessible pockets. No added weight from magnets or bulk from over-engineering. These vests are a streamlined way to give a runner more options for hydration, nutrition, and gear when needed.

    The only comment I have on improvement of these actually has to do with bottles. I think a flat-sided bottles are more comfortable if you are carrying bottles in the front of these vests on long runs. You can use the 10oz UD flat bottles but those are a little small, and in races it is a pain and adds time to fill up multiple small bottles at each aid station. It would be great to see a flat UD bottle in the 14oz-16oz range. I used a 12oz Amphipod bottle in the front which was more comfortable than a round bottle (but 12oz was still a little small). Soft flasks are also nice but can be hard to find and get a little awkward above ~10oz.

    Great to see new innovation coming out of UD! Way to go Buzz and the UD team!

  3. Alan York November 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    How about a Skurka-designed backpack? UD used to make some nice ones!

  4. Chris November 28, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing — very interested in these packs as a runner. Also excited as an outdoor retail employee who has always wanted more options for the runners who come into the store looking for something that will really work while running. Well, we shall see what the feedback is from users, but sounds like UD took the right approach in designing these packs!

  5. Marily November 29, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Nice overview! It was great to see you at the event!

  6. Gerald December 1, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Have an Adventure Vest on its way to me… Wanted to add something to the above comment regarding how much better flat water bottles would probably be: Check out Ultimate Direction’s YouTube videos… There’s one with a product designer showing a prototype for a new bottle that’s due to come out next year – which is flattened 😉

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