The Peter Pan in all of us
One of the strands of DNA that connects the Baby Boomers and their Gen X siblings is a preoccupation with youthfulness, the Peter Pan Syndrome.
Peter Pan, the little boy who never grew up, is best known from Walt Disney’s classic animated movie. And if there is one thing Walt understood, it’s the kid inside everyone. All aboard for Tomorrowland!
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Disney-inspired Boomers created a society where adult youthfulness is not only permissible but embraced. No, not immaturity, but willingness to learn new things and discard old ideas about what is or isn’t appropriate for our age.
Which is how we Peter – and Petra – Pans invented the modern sports shoe business, and took it viral.
What’s in a name … tennis shoes or sneakers?
Business Insider recently published some breakthrough linguistic mapping by statistician Joshua Katz that shows pretty much everyone in America, except the northeast, calls sports shoes tennis shoes. Up there they’re sneakers.
It’s worth noting that most news stories about the market uses sneakers. Maybe because so many who write the stories live back east, the term has grown in popular usage. But, out here in the sticks, we’ll still hung up on tennis shoes.
How Boomers and Gen X took tennis shoes viral
In the 1960s, sports shoes were far from an adult fashion statement. Grown ups wore them for, well, playing sports while teenagers and young rebels favored Chuck Taylor All-Stars for just hanging out. Rebels preferred their shoes frayed, of course.
Los Angeles was the distance runner mecca in those days. With an ideal climate for year-round training and a booming job market, former NCAA college stars could support themselves while competing for a spot on the next Olympic team. Pretty soon SoCal run-for-fun 10K races attracted amateur fitness addicts as well
So it was that hip West Coast Boomers were the first to adopt athletic shoes as off-track casual wear. Call us shallow but, hey, it was California.
We thought they were boss; they signaled membership in the elite club of jocks – or, at least jock-wannabes. Spotting someone at the grocery store in a pair of Adidas, Pumas or Tigers was sure to start a conversation about personal best race times, local venues and the new young stars who were breaking records.
Top of the new stars list was that incredible new kid from Kansas, Jim Ryun – later U.S. Congressman Ryun – who ran a sub-4 minute mile in high school and smashed the world record in 1966 wearing Adidas.
Sports shoe manufacturers soon realized that stripes and swooshes were the currency of cool.
That same year, future Nike co-founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman opened their Blue Ribbon Sports store in Santa Monica featuring Onitsuka Tigers. After selling them out of the trunk of a car at West Coast running events, Knight was planning to go big-time.
Running was still a tiny niche; a big race had 150-200 entrants. In 1970 there were still fewer than 100,000 participants in all organized events nationwide.
In the 1970s everything began to change. The hot new Nike brand (1971) and its inevitable competition were quick to embrace a national fitness and health craze that would critical mass by 1980 and impact just about everything from health foods, vitamin use, racquetball, gym attendance to, of course, running and jogging.
Boomers were in the vanguard, with their younger Gen X siblings joining in to morph sports shoes into acceptable casual wear – as both a fashion statement and a lifestyle symbol that signaled active, cool and youthful at any age.
Along the way, run-for-fun race participation soared. Running USA reports that in 1990 almost 5 million people finished a 5K, 10K, half marathon or full marathon road race. By 2013, the number was 19 million; two races combined – the New York Marathon and the Peachtree 10K – had more participants than the entire U.S. total in 1970.
Even after Peter Pan Boomers hit their 40s and 50s, the sports shoe industry still recognized their importance. In 2003, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimated we bought nearly 30% of all tennis shoes. A spokesman said “… Boomers are more athletically and fitness-inclined than any 50-plus generation in the history of this country.”
The National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) reported Americans bought about 95 million pairs of tennis shoes in 2013; 46.2 million for runners and joggers and 48.6 million as casual athletic shoes. NSGA growth projections suggest over 100 million pairs of tennis shoes will be bought in 2015.
So, grudgingly accepting some mortality and the arriving Millennial horde, Boomers will still buy 20-30 million pairs of tennis shoes this year. Who says Peter Pan is just a fable?
Adland prefers sneakers to tennis shoes but dismisses Boomer wearers of both
The Northeast dialect sounds cute when it’s sneakers not tennis shoes. But when it comes to marketing, back east patois can be seriously incoherent: the Madison Avenue old guard says that after age 50 our ability to absorb new ideas shrivels overnight. So we’re shunned in mainstream brand advertising.
The enormous Boomer-Plus Generation™ (official Baby Boomers plus those born 1940-1945) is actually America’s most adaptable. We didn’t make running shoes cool and take them viral by being inflexible; it’s naive to take us for granted. We own over 70% of U.S. household net worth. And, 93 million strong, if we were a country it would be the world’s #3 economy – bigger, more affluent than Japan or any EU nation.
Boulder, Colorado, our consultant network HQ, has a special affinity for running shoes. The Bolder Boulder, America’s 2nd largest 10K, is held here every Memorial Day. A quarter of last year’s 45,000+ finishers were over 50.
Disruptives brand thinkers might want to check out what makes Boomers run.