(OR Lessons in Marketing and Branding in the Toe Shoe World)

I got an email from BirthdayShoes reader David the other day about how he had been growing his collection of FiveFingers. We got to talking a bit and I found out that he actually got his start into the minimalist shoes/toe shoes market via buying a pair of … wait for it … Fila Skeletoes.

Importantly, David mentioned how he liked his Vibrams better (His words: “I don’t like [the Skeletoes] nearly as much [as my FiveFingers”), so I asked him if he’d be willing to share a little more. Here’s what David had to say:

I think the Vibrams are much better. I had gotten the original Skele-toes because they didn’t have the Skeletoes 2.0 in my size.

The first thing I did was give them a beating. I did a trail run in the pouring rain and ran through tons of mud and ran through water above knee level (and I am 6’4″). The trails I run are pretty crazy so the Skele-toes can take a good beating. I really liked them a lot and read more about minimalist shoes and watched videos and everyone was saying the Vibrams where pretty much the best.

I did more research and found a place really close to me that sells them and bought the KSO’s and I realized right away how much better they where and how much more of the ground I could feel and how much more movement I had. They did really well on some crazy rocks but every once in a while I would land on a not so nice rock on my forefoot and it would be really uncomfortable so I ended up getting another pair of FiveFingers—the Treksport, which allow me to still feel everything and give me the same movement as the standard KSO, but when I hit those not friendly rocks it doesn’t hurt at all even though I can still feel them (if that makes sense).

I use the KSO a lot now just for walking around and going to stores and whatnot and sometimes at home when I am not barefoot and also for running on concrete. But for the crazy trails I run the TrekSport&mdsah;can’t be beat in my opinion.

I’d say the Fila Skele-toes are great to start with and are not a bad shoe but they are just not as enjoyable to run in as FiveFingers. I think my next pair of minimalist shoes may be those new balance black and white casual shoes you reviewed on youtube.

Skele-Toes the “Gateway” Toe Shoes leading to Vibram FiveFingers bliss.

I’ve been speculating that something like what David is experiencing here has been going on for awhile now. Really, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. For example, in the recent post about the Fila Skele-toes “Toetally Original” billboard campaign (Yes, really), a commenter by the name of TLou said the following (emphasis mine):

Could be that Fila is doing Vibram a favor.

I would have never jumped into Vibrams at their pricing point. I first saw them like 2 years ago and was intrigued, but the price was just to much for a footwear experiment. So, just last week I found a pair of FS-Ts on sale for $30 and figured what the heck*!

They were comfortable for walking in, but sitting around in them was a bit much. The problem is that going back to my normal shoes after them was a bit tough. I have some foot issues to go along with being overweight and after wearing the FS-Ts for a couple of days with no foot issues, I tried to go back to my normal shoes and the issues came back and seemed greatly exaggerated.

You are probably wondering where Vibrams come into this… well, after wearing the [Fila Skele-Toes] for almost a week, I decided to check out Vibrams because I want something I can be comfortable in all day at work. So, I went out and bought a pair of KSO [FiveFingers] and I couldn’t be happier. They are great for walking, standing, and even just sitting at my desk.

So yeah, I wish I hadn’t spent the 30 bucks on the Fila Skele-Toes, but if I had not, I would have never bought the KSO’s.

In short, even while TLou had known about FiveFingers for a couple years, the high price tag kept him at bay; meanwhile, the Skele-toes provided a low-cost entrypoint into putting a “toe in the water” (I have to use these phrases, ok?) of the toe shoes/minimalist footwear market. The Skele-toes aren’t a bad product (something I attribute to the benefits of articulating toes in footwear), but they’re also not a great product — shortcomings include a too-stiff sole and some so-so upper builds. Eyes opened to the benefits of toe shoes and now wanting a pair that was a little better than his Skele-Toes, TLou jumped on the Vibram fan club.

What can we learn from this?

There are a handful of things the whole Skeletoes vs. FiveFingers toe shoes showdown brings to light. Let’s review:

  • Toe shoes work. It’s due to the design. Even less than ideal implementations are incredibly comfortable and functional.
  • Marketing and distribution matter. It’s not enough to have your product promoted by word of mouth; when our attention is divided across numerous screens and devices to the point of absurdity throughout the day, the only way to be seen is to be bold. Fila is “toetally” winning the marketing battle over Vibram.
  • When it comes to a novel product — even one being touted as having huge health benefits — price is incredibly important. In short, there was a huge gaping hole in the toe shoe market for a low-cost option. Fila took advantage of this gap with their Skele-toes.
  • It’s not enough to be first, nor is it enough to be better. Please, please, please don’t let FiveFingers become the minimalist footwear equivalent of the Betamax.

Now tell me if this sounds familiar.

Back in 2008 when I first saw FiveFingers via MarksDailyApple.com, I knew I had to had some. Then I learned they cost $75. My immediate thought, “Man, that’s a lot of money on some weird shoes that my wife/in-laws/family are likely going to think I’m crazy for buying.” I bought them anyway (and the rest is history). In the early days of BirthdayShoes, I distinctly remember thinking shortly thereafter, “I really hope Vibram decided to start selling the Classics/KSOs/Sprints at a lower pricepoint.”

What I envisioned was selling Classic FiveFingers for about $50, Sprints for $55, and KSOs for $60 — something like that. This just seemed obvious to me, but obviously nothing like this has happened (at least not officially; many of the original FiveFingers have gone on sale in the past few months). Meanwhile, Fila has stepped full-fledged into the toe shoe market with the Skele-toes and 600+ counterfeit online retailers have dived in selling cheap, low quality fakes, too.

What’s really going on. What’s the impact.

I think I actually get a lot of why Vibram isn’t selling FiveFingers either in big box stores or at department stores or at lower prices. It’s a brand thing. Vibram is a premium brand and my hunch is the powers that be don’t want to dilute that brand by being sold at lower prices at mass merchant retailers (and sell against shoes featuring Vibram soles, too, if that’s the case).

I get it. I really do.

My beef is just this: when you’re the pioneer in a new frontier of footwear and you let inferior products step in and take over the market effectively defining the shoe category (toe shoes/”barefoot shoes”) you single-handedly created, aren’t you allowing your brand to be diluted via the collateral damage of lower quality toe shoes flooding the market, anyway?

I’ll stop short and ask if I’m off my rocker here or hitting the nail on the head — what do you think?

Happy Friday!

* Random factoid: the original Skele-toes billboard campaign was “What the heck are those things?”