Hi-Tec shifts focus to lightweight hiking

"Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged" -- This refrain from a Beatles song could very well serve as the new Hi-Tec marketing slogan. Following a change in leadership in the last year, Hi-Tec will move away from adventure racing product to focus on lightweight hiking footwear.

“Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged” — This refrain from a Beatles song could very well serve as the new Hi-Tec marketing slogan.

Following a change in leadership in the last year, Hi-Tec will move away from adventure racing product to focus on lightweight hiking footwear.

“We’ve tried different things to extend the brand and, in doing that, lost sight of what we’re best at,” said Paul Brooks, who was appointed president and CEO of Hi-Tec Sports USA and took over in September 2002. In a significant change in direction, Hi-Tec will place much less emphasis on adventure racing products. “The adventure racing product is not where the company’s strength lies,” said Brooks. “Consumers are not so much looking to the Hi-Tec brand for the more athletic product.”

Brooks said the change in direction is part of Hi-Tec’s decision to pay more attention to consumer demands. “We’re listening to what the market is telling us more than we ever have. We’re doing more up-front research involving consumers, retailers and opinion leaders to develop a stronger level of intelligence and identify more clearly the needs of the market.”

According to Brooks, Hi-Tec failed to realize how consumers perceived the brand. “There was a disconnect in what we felt the brand actually stood for,” he said. “We want to return to what put us on the map in the first place — lightweight hiking product.”

Brooks said that Hi-Tec is relying more heavily on its marketing team to connect with consumers, retailers and market leaders. And the marketing team has a few new faces. Gone from the marketing department are Pam Aberle, former marketing director and Jeff Bua, former senior vice president of sales and marketing. (Aberle now works as the Northern California footwear rep for Columbia.) Hi-Tec’s new marketing director is Darin Jesberg, former magnum marketing and business development manager.

As the team under Jesberg listens more closely to people outside the company, employees on the inside are paying more attention to each other. Brook said there’s a new company culture that’s more “team oriented” and “inclusive.”

“The previous regime maybe didn’t listen to the market as much as it should have, and didn’t include enough of the right people in the process,” said Brooks. And while he hasn’t formally restructured his teams, he said those involved in product development “get together more, discuss things more, work in less isolation and involve each other on a wider basis.”

In another significant move, Hi-Tec will no longer sponsor a series of short adventure races popular among both less hard-core and hardcore alike known to many as “the Hi-Tec races.” Balance Bar, already sponsor of a series of 24-hour races put on by the same marketing group, announced Jan. 10 that it would be the new sponsor for the races. Brooks said the money that had been earmarked for the adventure races will be used to develop a program with the American Hiking Society. “We will become the official footwear brand of the American Hiking Society,” said Brooks, noting that this sponsorship will help consumers identify the Hi-Tec brand with hiking rather than adventure racing.

In addition, consumers will find Hi-Tec soon producing more products in the $40 retail price range. “We has established a good position at $70, but tended to neglect products down to $40,” said Brooks.

SNEWS View: We can understand departing from its strong relationship with the adventure races and their sponsorship since the company has probably milked all it can from that market. But before Hi-Tec’s tie with the mass market adventure races, it was nothing more than a discount footwear brand with about a top price of $40. It was in fact the adventure racing sponsorships that put the company on the map, its name on the lips of many thousands of race participants and their friends and families, and helped ratchet up the company — with the help of course of supporting product — to a mid-“price-point” brand that reached $80 and $90. That came in tandem with its emphasis on family and kids, with increasingly strong showings in kids footwear at price points that parents could swallow to buy for growing kids.

We therefore have to ask why it’s changing direction with its product line — Insiders have told us recently (and we wrote this in stories a year and more ago in company updates) that sales were continuing to increase. We have heard no word of things going differently. So change for change’s sakes is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, to quote a bad cliché. Why fix it if it ain’t broke, we ask with yet another bad cliché. It remains to be seen if banking on a relationship with the American Hiking Society will continue the increase in Hi-Tec’s bottom line that began in about 1999.

Certainly, a move back to focusing marketing and design efforts only on lightweight hiking footwear makes sense on one hand, but the abruptness of the transition raises many eyebrows. In fact, the move leaves us at SNEWS and many in the market scratching their heads. Don’t be surprised if the market looks upon Hi-Tec skeptically as the brand attempts to redefine itself…err, become once again what it once was, which was before it decided the company needed a more technical emphasis, but without a real stated reason for the U-turn. Also, the shift toward lower price points certainly fuels the belief that Hi-Tec is also returning to a focus on mass market and more value-oriented footwear — again, a return to the ways of old, but can it compete in that rather heated arena in the likes of retailers like Wal-Mart and Big 5?