Clicking along slowly in the last two years as it sought a broader audience and bigger recognition, Nordic walking took a big step forward last week when Exel Sports and Reebok International announced they would partner to promote the activity, using the expertise of both brands to pump up its popularity nationally.
"I think Nordic walking will resonate," Marcy Schwam, director of global walking for Reebok, told SNEWSÂ®. "This has the potential â€¦ if we start showing it as more of a training program and more of a fitness activity, rather than old folks just walking around with poles."
That's exactly what pole companies (Exel, Leki and Swix mostly, with some me-too from Gabel, Komperdell and others) in the United States have said all along about Nordic walking since it made its debut here in 2003. But those pole specialists have been rather small voices without the loudspeaker to broadcast their message to the masses -- perhaps akin to a young child calling for mom in Grand Central Station at rush hour.
With Reebok, the pole companies, which have been doing their best on low-budget consumer, instructor and retail education, have perhaps found their loudspeaker that can turn the heads of the masses.
Following in Europe's shoes
Certainly, in Europe, heads were turned earlier with a public that knew more about poles and their use, not withstanding the jump-on-the-bandwagon momentum that also came when Reebok, Asics, New Balance, Meindl, Odlo and other footwear and apparel companies in Europe grabbed onto Nordic walking with gusto. You can't walk through a trade show or sports store without seeing or hearing about Nordic walking and related products, from hydration packs to shoes, and jackets to heart-rate monitors.
Despite skepticism and occasional snickers in the United States, Nordic walking is a booming activity in central Europe and particularly in German-speaking countries and Scandinavia with millions just saying "yes" to poles. This all began in 1997 when Exel actually introduced the activity, although really only gained a strong following since about 2002, European master trainers have told SNEWSÂ®. (Click here for an Aug. 8, 2006, SNEWSÂ® update story, "Nordic walking Update: Europe hot, Portland Marathon adds NW division.")
"This is a perfect way to grow the business in North America," said Chris Griffin, Exel's North American vice president of sales. "This will actually help boost things in the right direction. I'm proud of Reebok stepping up to the plate."
Although the partnership is between Finland-based Exel and Reebok, other pole manufacturers that have staunchly supported the potential of Nordic walking see the benefit to all involved. The arrangement will offer the activity "more exposure and more legitimacy," said Lindy Spiezer, Leki marketing manager who has helped spearhead Nordic walk sessions at all Outdoor Retailer shows since summer 2004. In fact, Leki and Exel have partnered on many of those activities at Outdoor Retailer, realizing that together they can perhaps make a bigger bang.
"We are all feeding off each other's success," Spiezer added. "In fact, we're counting on it."
Media and fitness exposure
With Reebok now in the picture, interest is sure to spike, as it has increased somewhat after consumer media exposure that came after SNEWSÂ® first wrote about Nordic walking in 2002 and followed with the first U.S. in-depth coverage in a GearTrendsÂ® magazine piece in January 2004 (click here to see find that issue).
Reebok also has a strong foothold in the fitness arena, and Schwam told SNEWSÂ® the company wants to be first to the U.S. market with Nordic walk-specific footwear. The first Nordic walking footwear should appear in early 2007.
"We have the footwear, and Exel has the equipment and knowledge for the sport," she said. "In the U.S., we may see taking on a little bit more of an outdoor consumer, and not just an older consumer. To get past the dorkiness, it will have to come into running specialty stores from the footwear side. If it only shows up in L.L. Bean, it will not work."
Schwam said also that so far Nordic walking has not managed to be a real collection at retail, and that must occur, partly so the consumers see the activity as a package and a unified message. Â
"You don't see it called Nordic walking as a collection in stores," said Schwam, who said her voicemail has been filled since the announcement ran in regional media. "You have shoes in one area and poles in another area. We have to get and encourage retailers to show things together."
Turn-key at retail, reaching instructors
The companies will design and package a "turn-key" solution for retailers, Griffin said, and Exel will tweak its colors and designs slightly so the poles and future Reebok product coordinate as well as meet the demands of North American consumers.
Meanwhile, the two will promote their partnership and the activity at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2006 in Salt Lake City, as well as at fitness-oriented retailers and running specialty. In addition, the company is sponsoring activity sessions and workshops at an American College of Sports Medicine conference this week that attracts fitness instructors and personal trainers, as well as at a regional IDEA conference for group-exercise instructors in Chicago later in April, said Exel's Tracy Ferland, vice president of sales and marketing (who called us back while Nordic walking, showing true dedication, SNEWSÂ® thinks).
SNEWSÂ® View: We have consistently said, despite some industry snickers and sarcasm, that Nordic walking has pretty big potential in North America, having seen and followed what is happening in Europe. We were the first to write about it and have followed it like no other publication, trade or consumer. That said, do we think the future will see hordes of walkers, runners and snowshoers with poles marching down paths, trails and streets? No. The culture here is quite different from Europe. Nevertheless, Nordic walking will be an avenue for many who like having equipment, who want more from a walk, who need a little inspiration or something different, who perhaps need stability while walking, or who want to really up the amp since holding poles can do that, too. The markets are in fact endless and only up to the creativity of those involved. We know in the last two years as pole companies pounded the drum, more and more retailers and even consumers have become convinced, but everybody frankly was just waiting for that tipping point when a BIG company like a Reebok would get behind it. Now, it has happened. And progress that has crept along slowly will now grow exponentially, we are sure.