Skip to content

On Shoes: How Roger Federer and Zendaya Are Redefining Athletic Footwear

On Shoes: How Roger Federer and Zendaya Are Redefining Athletic Footwear

Zendaya has won two Emmys, one Golden Globe, and has more than 180 million followers on Instagram. She’s the face of a new generation of Hollywood icons, and brands are lining up for a chance to work with her. But instead of signing with the usual suspects like Nike, Adidas, or Puma, Zendaya went with a different brand. Zendaya signed with On.

Introduction to On

So the question needs to be asked: What the hell is On?

To understand the new player in the sportswear market, we need to look at another brand ambassador. Because Zendaya is not the first one to choose On over Nike, and it might have something to do with her latest movie.

A part of the company On is owned by Roger Federer. He has won 20 Grand Slams wearing the Nike swoosh, befriended Nike co-founder Phil Knight, and they sold a lot of shoes together. One of Nike’s marketing directors even said that Nike could have done for Roger Federer what they did for Jordan. It was the perfect relationship.

But then something happened. Roger Federer and Nike broke up. It was one of the most controversial sports marketing decisions ever. Suddenly, even the New York Times was writing about an athlete leaving a brand. Many commentators said that Roger Federer was making a mistake, leaving the almighty Nike marketing machine that could have helped him build his brand even after the end of his career, when there would be no images of him lifting trophies anymore.

And indeed, Roger Federer never won another Grand Slam after leaving Nike. But he did something maybe even bigger. He created the fastest-growing shoe brand in history, a new competitor for Nike. Welcome to Athletic Interest and how Roger Federer is building a billion-dollar shoe company called On. It took Nike eight years to hit 1 billion in sales after going public. On did it in less than 18 months.

Comparing On and Nike

They emerged in different decades and under different circumstances, but it’s hard to not see the similarities between the two companies. The focus on innovation, performance-driven, strong branding. It seems that On does the same thing that Nike did, but better or at least faster. And Nike wouldn’t be the first market leader to fall. Think of Nokia, Kodak, or Blockbuster Video. There is no subscription to staying number one.

Origins of On

But let’s start at the beginning. There is an old, rusty waffle iron displayed at the company museum at Nike’s World Headquarters in Oregon. More than 50 years ago, Nike Co-Founder Bill Bowerman used it to create the Waffle Trainer, the shoe that launched a billion-dollar athletic empire. If there is ever going to be an On Running museum, it will probably display a garden hose.

In 2005, On Founder Olivier Bernhard got a call from an engineer asking for his shoes. Bernhard was a well-known athlete in Switzerland, a six-time Ironman winner, and known for being a performance junkie who loves tinkering and pushing to find an edge. The engineer said: “I’ll put something on them, and you go run.” Intrigued by the call, he mailed off a pair of his Nikes and got them back with cut-up garden hose pieces on the bottom. The shoes looked so ugly that he waited until midnight to go for a test run. But real beauty comes from the inside, and the shoes made him feel like “running on clouds.” Sounds a little bit too perfect for a brand origin story, but okay.

Bernhard continued working on the shoe. He spent the next three years building on the engineer’s work, cutting hoses and gluing them on shoes to invent a springy sole. And the next step? Making more than just a pair for himself, but going from prototype to production. As a Nike athlete, the logical step for him was to approach Nike. He pitched his idea, and Nike rejected it. Looking back, Bernhard admits that if he was in Nike’s position, he would have laughed at his garden hose design. But he believed in his idea. He had put in so much work already.

So Bernhard presented the prototype to his friends, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti. Allemann described the shoes as Frankensteins, but they saw the potential of the product once they ran in it. So in 2010, they formed the company On-running in Zurich and launched the Cloudracer. The shoe quickly developed a somewhat cult-like following among runners. Once people tried the shoes, they were hooked and willing to pay a higher price to get their hands on a pair.

Early Success and Expansion

In the next few years, On became the biggest shoe brand in Switzerland and even sold more running shoes than Adidas in their homeland Germany. They kept expanding to other countries, developed more models, and started signing the first On sponsored athletes—all while sales kept growing.

Strategic Growth and IPO

In September 2021, On went public and just 18 months later hit the $1 billion mark in sales. No other footwear company has grown so quickly in such a short span of time. So what is the secret behind the rapid success of On? We broke their recipe down into three reasons—and a rock.

It’s because of this guy! Okay, not only because of this guy, but it’s a great anecdote. Because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson saved On millions of dollars by wearing On shoes in the promo intro for the Super Bowl in 2020. Everything else he wore was black, but the shoes were white.

It seemed like it was staged, but Bernhard emphasized: “We don’t have a deal with him. We assume that Dwayne Johnson bought the On shoes himself.” The Super Bowl has the most valuable advertising spots in the world, and On got one for free. The clip got millions of views, and suddenly people started talking about the shoes.

The really weird part: The Rock is not only not paid by On, he is on contract with Under Armour with his own signature line. On couldn’t have wished for better marketing. Apparently, this was just a lucky shot. But On also has a well-prepared strategy.

Marketing Innovations

On has three main focus points.

First is efficiency.

With every shoe sold, On makes more money than Nike or Adidas. They have a better margin because they often skip the middlemen, like Footlocker. We explain that in more detail in our video “What It Actually Costs to Make A Sneaker?”.

The retailer usually gets 50% of the sales, meaning less margin for the shoe brand. But On focuses on selling directly to the consumer through online and flagship stores. This type of revenue is more than half of their total revenue. On makes 57.2%, Nike 43.7%, and Adidas 39%.

On is incredibly selective with their retail presence. They only open stores in premium shopping locations in major cities such as New York, London, and Shanghai. This is where most consumers can afford expensive shoes, which is also the first sign of their brand positioning. Think of Switzerland and Swiss brands. Now, it’s probably no surprise that the team at On is going for a premium brand position, high quality for high-value markets.

On is well aware of the positive image that ‘Swiss Engineering’ has. They even put it on their shoes, together with a little Swiss flag. And sometimes, they adapt strategies from fellow Swiss brands, for example, keeping supply low to create scarcity, like Rolex does with their watches. Just recently, On even stopped shipping their products to about 200 retailers because they were not “premium” enough.

Brand Positioning and Federer’s Influence

The Swiss DNA was set in stone when they signed their most important deal yet: Roger Federer. Another former Nike athlete, he is not only a brand ambassador for On. Roger Federer currently owns 3% of the company and is also a contributing product designer and representative for the brand.

Being an investor and not just a brand ambassador underlines that this collaboration is meaningful and not just a publicity stunt. And it looks like it’s working. Since Roger Federer joined, On has quadrupled its sales. Thanks to their premium brand, On can ask for higher prices. But their unique selling point is probably their innovation.

Technological Innovation

In 2010, On patented a cushioning technology developed at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. As a runner, you are looking for the smoothest, shortest contact with the ground to perform at your best. Tests showed that On’s shoes allow a runner to touch down later in their stride and lift off earlier, creating a feeling of gliding, or running on clouds.

That’s where the technology got its name: CloudTec. In 2011, a study found that runners wearing On were able to run at lower pulse rates and had lower blood lactate levels than with their normal running shoes. Essentially, the On shoes were helping them to run more efficiently.

The innovations don’t end here. Like a subscription model for shoes: the CloudNeo. You can’t buy this shoe, just rent it. When the shoe gets old, you can send it back and receive a brand new one. Subscription models are great for keeping customers and getting regular feedback. Since the customer doesn’t own the shoe and returns it, and because the materials can be recycled, it’s also very sustainable.

On has a solid strategy, a strong brand, and an innovative product. But to attack Nike, one last thing was missing. If On really wants to attack the footwear giants, they need to go global. For going global, it’s not enough to accidentally be at the Super Bowl once. So On needed money. Money to expand. If you want to get money quickly, you need to sell shares. So On decided to go public.

The IPO in 2021 was On’s next step to get to the top of the footwear market. They sold shares for nearly 750 million dollars. On was now officially worth 6 billion dollars. If you were one of those first investors, you are probably happy in 2024 because the stock kept growing since then.

So should Nike be worried?

First of all, Nike has a 40-year lead. Nike went public in 1980, and they had more than a couple of good ideas and years. Let’s put On’s success into perspective: These are the valuations of Nike and other footwear brands. The number of employees. Here – the revenues. Nike’s total revenue in 2022 was more than 45 (46.7) billion dollars, which is nearly 40 times the amount of On’s revenue.

Before the IPO, On was, globally, not more than a niche product. But so was Nike in the beginning. During the early days of the swoosh, running wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today. In the 1960s and early 70s, when Nike was just starting, going for a run wasn’t even a real thing yet. People were able to run, but it was nothing you’d do in your free time. It was for serious athletes or “nerds” who were passionate about fitness. It wasn’t mainstream.

But the rise of Nike happened alongside the rise of running. Running became more and more popular, and Nike’s business got more and more potential customers.

On’s rise also came with a new rise of running. Global statistics show that there was a 65% increase in running during the pandemic. There are 20 million “new” runners in 2022 compared to early 2020 in America. The pandemic more than doubled the number of people running and buying running shoes. On started like Nike, as a running brand founded by athletes. But they also try to grow into new markets, for example, tennis. Tennis, by the way, was the first new sport that Nike expanded into as well.

On launched the Roger Collection in 2021. It seemed like the perfect recipe for success on paper, but it failed to live up to expectations. The signature CloudTec didn’t provide enough lateral stability for the 360-degree movement in tennis.

They worked closely with Roger Federer to design a professional tennis shoe from scratch. Its bottom-light construction and stiff foams are perfect for someone who can glide gracefully across a court like Roger Federer, but might not maintain balance as well for someone who slides into shots. In Co-CEO Marc Maurer’s own words, “It turns out creating a professional tennis shoe is extremely hard.” One big reason why Nike and Adidas have been so successful is that they have been able to diversify into all kinds of sports.

Challenges and Expansion into New Markets

So far, On is still endeavoring to break out of the running niche and seek their Michael Jordan moment. Could this be where Zendaya comes in? After all, the most money isn’t made with running, basketball, or tennis products, but with sportswear. So who knows, perhaps in a few years from now, we’ll be producing another video about a new number one in the athletic apparel game.

Leave a Reply