What it takes to compete with giants

How the founders of Hylo are spreading awareness of their sustainable running shoe brand, which eventually aims to disrupt a sector that is dominated by giant conglomerates.
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Jacob Green’s lightning-bolt moment came on a run on London’s Hampstead Heath. His shoes were on the way out, and he saw a disconnect when he looked down. ‘I was in this beautiful green space, but wearing a load of plastics on my feet, which would end up in a landfill somewhere.’

Jacob called his friend Michael Doughty – a vegan footballer who drives an electric car – who was excited to hear the idea for a performance-driven running shoe that would be good for the planet. Soon, they were meeting with John Prescott, a veteran of Nike, Adidas, Puma and Asics. Having left the big brands due to frustration at their lack of innovation on social and environmental issues, John was struck by what the pair call ‘a certain relentlessness’.

Spending around £450,000 on the brand’s August launch, much of it self-funded, the trio’s aim wasn’t to redesign sports shoes, but to rethink how they’re made – with the goal of creating the most sustainable version, and ultimately competing with the rest of the giant sports brands. They came up with a shoe made from seven natural materials, including a corn fibre upper that can be composted, a corn starch insole and a natural rubber outsole that they plan to eventually recycle as slides or recovery shoes. They didn’t just simplify the number of materials (most big-brand trainers use more than 20 – mostly synthetic – materials), but also the supply chain, with all but two of the materials coming from within 100km of the brand’s factory in Putian, in China’s Fujian province. 

The minimal design of the £100 Hylo V1, a light shoe in four colours for men and women, was created by London agency Otherway. The agency also helped the trio come up with a name – after Hylotelephium, a flowering succulent that is said to live forever – and the lightning-bolt logo, a reference to the threat of climate change. But the challenge, after launching with 5,000 pairs of shoes shipped from Fujian, has been to get the word out during a global pandemic.

Building a mission-driven community

Hylo’s original launch plan had been to introduce popups in major cities, but when lockdown hit, the founders decided on a digital-first strategy built around environmentally aware athletes, with a clear mission that they’ve dubbed ‘Athletes for Planet’. While that seemed like a setback, 2020 has been a banner year for athletes taking stands on social issues, from footballer Marcus Rashford’s successful free school meals campaign to the powerful support for Black Lives Matter from F1 driver Lewis Hamilton and tennis star Naomi Osaka. ‘Sportspeople are increasingly up there with actors and rock stars in impacting how the world thinks,’ says Michael.

Hoping to attach Hylo to sports-driven campaigns on climate change, they sought out six young ambassador athletes, from Leeds United forward Patrick Bamford to star T20 cricket bowler Sophie Ecclestone and under-20s sprinter Alicia Regis. Not only have the athletes posted about Hylo’s launch, with Solheim Cup golfer Charley Hull talking to her 76k Instagram followers, but they’re encouraged to ‘take the mission further’. Patrick, for example, has started celebrating his Premier League goals by doing a lightning sign with his fingers, a climate-awareness message closely linked to Hylo. ‘We want to empower our athletes to talk more about climate change,’ says Michael. ‘We’re not trying to dictate what they say or how they say it. It’s more like an alignment of values.’

The aim is to build a values-driven community around the brand, with customers seeing themselves as ‘athletes for planet’ too. At launch, the team put short teaser videos on social media, encouraging people to sign up to emails to see a longer version, or to get the chance to win a pair of Hylos. Those who had signed up could then get discounts if they got others to do the same. Everyone who signs up or buys a pair of shoes gets a message about the brand’s mission, and Michael says they’ve been speaking directly to customers about everything from sizing to supply chain. ‘It’s really important that we get every touchpoint right. From the way the recycled packaging looks to the way we speak to our community, we want it to be sort of old-school customer service.’

The founders are hoping that growth will be organic as the message is celebrated by the athlete ambassadors and happy customers, like Sjana Elise, a yoga and wellness influencer with 1.6 million followers, who raved about the shoes’ softness and snug fit. Unlike Allbirds, another environmentally focused shoe brand that has raised more than $100m in funding, Hylo’s founders want to build a community before chasing serious venture capital.

Running against the megabrands

But while they want the growth to be steady, Jacob is clear that he ultimately sees Hylo competing with the big boys in gyms and on runs – even if the plan is to have a much smaller range than Nike or Adidas, with a focus on refining existing designs (there will likely be a V2 down the line). ‘People are increasingly wearing their values and expecting more from brands than just talking a good game,’ he says. ‘In 10 or 15 years, we really think that brands with a genuine sustainability message will outperform the rest. And we have an advantage because we’re starting with that mission instilled in everything we do. We just want to get the message out there and keep building.’

‘We want to empower our athletes to talk more about climate change. We’re not trying to dictate what they say or how they say it. It’s more like an alignment of values.’
Ways the Hylo founders have adapted

1. Making the time Michael retired as a midfielder with Swindon Town to focus on Hylo – partly because having a child convinced him to leave ‘the best job in the world’ to follow his ideals.

2. Changing the name Michael and Jacob originally wanted to call the brand Ozone, but Otherway talked them out of it – instead suggesting Hylo. 

3. Changing the launch strategy: the original nationwide popup launches became a digital-first strategy, using teaser videos on social media and athletes to spread the word.

Lessons from Hylo’s messaging

Less is more 

The design of the shoes and recycled packaging is minimal and the brand messages are simple: ‘Athletes for Planet’, ‘Champions of Tomorrow’ and ‘Run like the world depends on it’. Be clear on the details Greenwashing doesn’t fly any more. Hylo is transparent about every part of the process.

Look like a sports brand 

Michael says that a lot of sustainable brands present themselves as ‘soft’, but Hylo wanted to emphasise performance. The thunderbolt logo suggests both athletic dynamism and climate change, and is handily an emoji for social media.

Use on-message ambassadors 

Hylo doesn’t tell its athletes what to think, or how to spread the message – because the ambassadors it chose already want to talk about how we can all help the environment.

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