Big Interview: Gary Raucher, Executive Vice President EMEA, Asics

Asics' EMEA boss Gary Raucher talks to Retail Gazette about the challenges he's had to face since joining the Japanese sportswear brand and retailer, such as how the coronavirus lockdown has exasperated demand for sportswear in the UK.

Gary Raucher Asics EMEA Kihachiro Onitsuka
Gary Raucher joined Asics in March last year.

Asics EMEA executive vice president Gary Raucher described himself as “a big believer in transferable skills” and reminisced on how he has made the transition from consumer-packaged goods to technology companies, and now the sporting goods industry.

“The essence of marketing is the same across all three of those industries,” he told Retail Gazette.

“It’s about finding ways to be able to communicate that innovation in a simple enough way that gives people a strong reason to choose your brand over competitors.”

Based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Raucher joined Asics in March last year at a time when the sportswear giant and retailer recorded a drop in consolidated net sales across the European market during its first quarter. He came on board to focus on driving growth in running, core performance sports and sports style.

In line with government guidance, Asics temporarily closed all of its UK stores in late March due to nationwide lockdown brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Raucher conceded that this was not easy, especially when Asics was working on raising brand awareness.

Gary Raucher Asics EMEA Kihachiro Onitsuka
Asics temporarily closed all of its UK stores on March 23.

“Most people don’t know Asics is an acronym for the Latin phrase ‘anima sana in corpore sano,’ which translates as ‘healthy soul in a healthy body’,” he said.

He said the UK presents one of the biggest growth opportunities from a brand perspective for Asics, as Brits are “really unfamiliar” with the brand.

“They’ve heard of it, but they don’t really know what it stems from, where it comes from and why it exists,” he explained.

“So I think that there’s a there’s a really big opportunity in the UK for us to make people more familiar with our purpose.”

One way that Asics aimed to raise brand awareness was by launching Founder’s Day, a day which celebrates the life of Kihachiro Onitsuka, the man who started it all. The annual occasion involves an internal event where there are celebrations in every country.

However, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Raucher said the celebrations this year went virtual.

“Asics is Latin for ‘anima sana in corpore sano’ which means healthy soul in a healthy body”

“We’re still working from home ourselves, so people will be will be doing their activities and then sharing images of the different activities that they’ve done so that we can come together as a community,” he said.

Raucher said the fear of the Covid-19 impact on UK business was meaningless given that Asics’ marketing strategy has remained unaffected throughout lockdown.

“The challenge that we face now is similar to the challenge that we faced before the crisis, which is that our brand is really well-known, but isn’t well loved,” he added.

“We need to improve our brand awareness, so we really need to make sure to our consumers they understand why they should be choosing Asics.”

Although sales have been adversely affected by the store closures, Raucher said customers have seemingly prioritised sport during lockdown: “People haven’t been able to do their typical activity, whether that be going to the gym or play tennis, more and more people are now picking up running. There is this growing interest.”

As a result of the shift in customer behaviours, Raucher said Asics has refocused on the core of its business, which is performance sports. He noted that consumers were prioritising mental wellbeing prior to the pandemic, but the pressures of Covid-19 accelerated this.

“That is really where we are powerful,” he said.

“It’s not just about the physical benefits of participating in sport, but it really is the mental benefit.

“That’s why we say it’s a sound mind in a sound body. We are a caregiver brand from Japan.

Gary Raucher Asics EMEA Kihachiro Onitsuka
Asics said there has been a growing interest in running since the lockdown.

“It’s also why later in the year we’re going to be partnering with global go-to solutions-focused conference Mad World, which is all about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

“There are greater levels of stress and anxiety now than there probably has ever been before, and the fact that we’re taking a very different approach to our competitors means there’s probably never been a better moment for us to be relevant to our consumers.”

Raucher argued that other sports brands would add to the stress and anxiety people are facing, because they really are about “winning at all costs”. He said Asics aimed to understand its target audience in an effort to know what product to launch next.

“One of the things that has truly differentiated us and will continue to differentiate us is that we really have always focused on injury prevention and continue to focus on immunity prevention,” he said.

“We’ll continue to take a holistic view on really making sure that people are protected from injury.

“We are a caregiver brand from Japan”

“People have felt so restricted and pent up over the last couple of weeks and months, that any opportunity to do physical activity, especially go for a run, makes you feel much better – that is really the core of what we’ve always been.”

Asics’ products come from the retailer’s Institute of Sport Science in Japan, where 100 scientists specialising in human movement ensure the innovations are an improvement on the last version of Asics’ own product as well as any comparable product from competitors.

“We are a product-driven company that is committed to making sure that we bring the best possible product to the market,” Raucher said.

Despite efforts to be “the most preferred performance sports retailer in the market” Asics has faced its fair share of challenges. For the full year ended December 31, it saw its sales drop by 2.2 per cent, which it blamed on weak sales in its apparel and equipment category.

Raucher admitted that Asics lost sight of what it stood for: “There was a period of time when Asics struggled, not just for one season but a few seasons, and I believe that a lot of that has come from us trying to be too many things to too many different people.

“We maybe deviate too much into the lifestyle space, and as a result, we weren’t as focused on doing the things that really allow us to be different and allow us to be better than our competitors.”

“We’ve got great new product launches coming this year”

Raucher also highlighted that Asics has very recently started to turn the business around. One of the changes includes taking more customer feedback from retail partners during the lockdown to “proactively try to collaborate in every possible way to help them navigate through this crisis”.

“We’re doing social listening,” he said.

“Every time that there is an interaction with our customer experience centre, we’re collecting feedback to send to our development teams.

“We are testing our products, we have a certain group of retailers that have early access not just to product launches, but to product development.

“We have a running expert club and tennis expert club where a select group of specialists are actually involved in product development. This allows us to be able to really meet and exceed the expectations of our customers.”

Despite the pandemic, Raucher said 2020 presents itself as an exciting year for Asics. But as a result of the pandemic, it delayed the introduction of its seasons and will launch its autumn/winter products in August.

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