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:
- The Signature Series are vests, not sacks-with-straps, so they better integrate the contents with the harness into a unified structure;
- They have the ability to carry bottles in the front, rather than just a water reservoir in the rear;
- 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!
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!