Racing the Calendar: Inside New Balance’s Test Run Project

By Kelsey Alpaio |  November 13, 2019

The Apollo 11 mission to the moon has inspired organizations to pursue their own “moonshot” innovations for 50 years now — ambitious ideas that just might work.  

For the footwear company New Balance, one recent moonshot project aimed to set a new record for taking a shoe design from concept to consumer. The traditional process takes 18 months; the new way, as a result of their Test Run program, is seven months. And in this case, the moon landing offered more than just innovation aspirations — it offered fashion inspiration. 

“Test Run is this large umbrella that we’ve created, which is really allowing us to be more nimble, move more quickly, and deliver newness to the consumer on a much faster timeline,” says Meredith Nash, Senior Product Manager for Future Sport at New Balance. The mission of the program’s second iteration was to “create a futuristic sneaker that you’d want to rock,” she says. The lead designer on the shoe, 23-year-old intern Adara Dillabaugh, used astronaut apparel as inspiration. 

Here’s how New Balance went from concept to market in only seven months.  

The Creation of Test Run

The driving force behind the creation of Test Run was Kevin Fitzpatrick, General Manager of the Performance Team at Boston-based New Balance. This team typically creates all shoes related to running, including the “future sport” category, which aims to bring in futuristic styling and innovation. 

Fitzpatrick and others in the company observed their industry moving faster, and wanted to make sure New Balance had the nimbleness it would need to keep up with new styles, design approaches, and manufacturing technologies.  

The normal process for creating a shoe at New Balance takes 18 months, which includes three design reviews, three rounds of samples, and a lengthy tooling process.  Not to mention the need for global merchandisers, key sales leads, product managers, and leadership to be involved along the way. This traditional approach is known as “inline,” refering to the repetitive manufacturing process where products pass through the same sequence of operations in a specific order. 

So in early 2017, with the support of senior leaders, Test Run was created to try and find an alternative solution. The first Test Run project was initiated in October 2017. 

“We definitely needed to get a lot of cross-functional teams onboard, all the way up to leadership, to say, ‘Can we try this avenue of quicker-to-market innovation?'” says Nash. “Everyone was used to the…development calendar. So how can we think differently, get creative, and really push and bend the rules?”

The first Test Run project, a ’90s-inspired shoe with ample cushioning, was able to deliver the concept to consumer in just 10 months. 

Nash says one of the keys to the faster timeline was creating a nimble Test Run team. Everyone involved in Test Run is part of the larger Performance Team at New Balance. Key players from each functional area are identified to work on any given Test Run project, including a project manager, designer, developer, and team experts in merchandising, marketing, sourcing, and allocation. And the budget for Test Run is a flexible part of the overall budget for the Performance Team. 

“We want [Test Run] to be very fluid and able to get after an innovation as soon as possible,” says Nash. “So rather than it being baked in far out when we’re doing budget planning, it comes from somewhere within the category.”

Adara Dillabaugh, designer of the Test Run Project 2 shoe. 

Test Run 2.0 

After the success and speed of the first Test Run iteration, Nash and her team were given the green light for 2.0. The idea for this second shoe came from a group of interns at New Balance called the Design Foundry Apprentices. These interns are typically young designers that are looking to get into the industry right out of school — and they usually have a sense for what’s next in fashion. 

Several members of the Performance Team started to notice these designers wearing a prototype for a New Balance shoe known as the Fresh Foam More. This is a chunky performance running shoe that utilizes the company’s “fresh foam” technology to create a lightweight, soft cushion.  

“These designers, we look to see what they’re wearing, as they’re very on trend, very young, very fashionable,” says Nash. “And a few of them started wearing…the Fresh Foam More. Some of us on the PM side were thinking, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. They’re wearing this chunky technical running shoe.’ And it was just the first prototype of it. So we saw them wearing it and stopped and talked to them and said, ‘Why are you guys wearing that?’ They’re definitely seeing the chunky trends coming in high-end fashion and something [about] that was speaking to them.” 

This sparked an idea. Nash encapsulates it this way: “Why don’t we quickly create some concepts for a more fashion-progressive offer using that existing [Fresh Foam More] tooling, and actually launch it before the inline tech running shoe comes out?” In other words, Test Run wanted to race the shoe that was being designed and brought to market the traditional way.  

Creating the Shoe

Once Nash and her team identified the type of shoe they wanted to create, they gathered the Design Foundry Apprentices and gave them a design brief. The goal was to design a shoe that they would want to wear, taking advantage of he existing Fresh Foam More tooling. 

The traditionally-designed Fresh Foam More shoe was slated to launch on April 1, 2019. Designs for this new fashion-forward shoe got rolling in August 2018. That gave the team only eight months if they wanted to launch before the inline shoe. 

By the end of August, after several rounds of sketching and two design reviews, Nash and her team had selected a final design. It was created by Dillabaugh, the only female design intern at New Balance at the time, and was inspired by the moon landing, science fiction, and the future of space exploration.  

“It was a really cool balance of the moon and space,” says Nash. “It’s this translucent upper with a mid-cut, and really bold, progressive styling with chunky overlays that gives it a much more fashion-futuristic retro vibe — versus what we had previously thought of this tooling looking like, which is a really technical performance upper.”

After selecting Dillabaugh’s design, the team immediately began developing the specifications for the factory, including specific height details, silhouette shape, materials, and colors. The specs were sent to the factory in October 2018. 

By November, the team was at the factory in Vietnam looking at “pullovers,” different tests of the shoe in the correct silhouette, shape, and pattern, but not necessarily in the correct materials or colors. And by late November, they were deciding on final color options.  

“A huge difference with Test Run versus our [typical] inline shoe is we only saw pullovers and one round of samples,” says Nash. “Inline, we normally do three rounds of samples. So we kind of had one shot to get it right in order to do this really condensed, quick-to-market timeline.”

The shoe’s specifications were finalized by late November, allowing production to start. And Nash says utilizing the tooling already in the works for their inline Fresh Foam More shoe made a huge impact. 

“If we had started a totally new tool, we would never be able to do seven months,” says Nash. She says a new tool would have added a minimum of 45 days to the process.  

Preparing for Launch

Nash says another time-saving choice was in how the Test Run shoe would be pitched to the merchandisers who select products that retailers will carry. With a typical inline shoe, the entire New Balance sales force receives a physical sample to sell to merchandisers. With Test Run, because it would be a limited production run, they sold to only a few key retail partners, most of them focused on fashion-forward, limited edition products. 

Some of these retailers included Bodega, Extra Butter, Jack Rabbit, Heartbreak Hill Run Company, and ASOS.

“We went to these accounts…and said, ‘This is a 2D drawing of the shoe,'” says Nash. “‘We don’t have a physical sample yet. But this is a really special, unique, limited-edition program. We’d love to give you a very small size run and give you an opportunity to participate in this brand new thing called Test Run.'” 

Only 1,650 pairs of the shoes were created, and partners outside of were given only 24 pairs — one of each size for each gender. 

“If you think about that lifestyle world, [limited edition products are] very important and really help drive energy in that world,” says Nash. “Consumers are looking for something that’s special that…no one else is going to have. You want to get it first before it’s gone. That was another part of the mentality of Test Run — [introduce] something brand new as quickly as possible, make it hard to get, and have consumers really be excited to get it quickly and to get something that others can’t find.”

The Test Run 2.0 shoe, known as the Fresh Foam More_Hi in the United States, was released on March 9, 2019 for $180.

Lessons Learned 

Despite the quick success and launch of the Test Run 2.0 shoe, Nash says there were lessons to be learned from the experience. 

“I think a big part of the process when you work on something like this that isn’t on the regular calendar, is making sure you have the right people in the room so that all areas are thought about and the process goes seamlessly,” says Nash. “Identifying those key partners was really important.”

Nash also said that working closely with the marketing team was important for the project’s success. 

“You can have a great shoe and you can have a brand new innovation and technology and you might feel awesome about the story,” says Nash, “But at the end of the day, if it’s not marketed correctly, and if we don’t pick the right partners to help us do that, the consumer is never going to hear about it or know about it.” 

There were also changes made to the process from the first iteration of the project to the second. The biggest change was the inclusion of retail partners — Test Run 1.0 was sold only by New Balance. Nash says working with these partners added additional energy to the launch, as many of them created their own marketing campaigns and social assets for promoting the shoe.

Was the Test Run 2.0 Shoe a Success?  

According to Nash, there were two major ways her team measured the success of this project. One metric was sell-through goals. The goal was to sell out the entire run within the first month of launch, which they achieved with Test Run 2.0. 

“Another metric that we’re looking for is that engagement piece,” says Nash. “We’re trying to really use Test Run to capture new consumers and engage with consumers in a way that New Balance hasn’t before. So we’re measuring who’s clicking through our Instagram stories? Who’s clicking on And then what is the transaction rate? Who’s actually purchasing?” 

As for what’s next, Nash says there are three more Test Run projects in the works, all with the same goal as before — getting innovative products to the consumer as quickly as possible.

The most recent Test Run shoe was launched on November 15, 2019. For the third iteration, desingers were tasked with finding a more sustainable approach to building a shoe.