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Non-availability vs brand loyalty, who wins eventually?

Last week I wrote a piece about Nike Vaporfly: how and why it became a heart-throb among runners.

To be honest, this will be a follow up confessional piece on my part. But trying to keep the article in line with the blog objective of sharing marketing/sales/branding/business lessons, I would like to weave in two important aspects of brands retaining customers: Availability and Brand Loyalty.

Availability is King

In our holy book of sales, availability is the king. When young MBA grads join our company, we teach each one the importance of making the product available and visible on the shelves of the sales outlets. Indeed, it has a huge impact on sales, as we have seen time and again through all the brands we have introduced in Nigeria (Indomie, Dano, Kellogg’s, Pringles, Colgate, Huggies, Kotex, etc). Although these are FMCG brands (my experience mostly lies in FMCG), the rule applies to all products and brands. Make it available or lose sales. And this is exactly what happened with Nike Vaporfly, the most sought after product of the carbon plated shoes era.

For the most part of last year (when I started running again after 2019 plagued with injuries), Nike Vapofly and Alphafly were not available anywhere. It still isn’t easily available even on their website. But anyhow, I needed to try out the carbon plated shoes. I was aiming for a sub 4 hour marathon and my desperation called for all the tools necessary to help me do that. Countless reviews and youtube videos later, I came to the conclusion that Vaporfly was undoubtedly the best, but in 2019, there were options from Adidas, Saucony, Brooks and Hoka: all reputed shoe brands.

So, I did what all brand managers wish their customers never did: switched brands. I was a Nike loyalist, but non-availability and desperation pushed me so hard that I decided to get my hands on whatever shoes were at my disposal. I got myself a Saucony Endorphin Pro.

The Saucony Endorphin Pro carbon plated shoes that gave Nike a strong competition

Non-availability defeats consumer pull when functional needs outweigh brand loyalty

This is something that we desperately try to avoid, or need to avoid: non-availability. When marketers create products and their ads, they create a pull from the consumers. People look for their products. Often times, the functional need of these products are so great that people resort to “perceived lower quality” to make do with it for the time being. This is what leads to trials for competitors.

This is exactly what happened in my case with Nike; and considering the mass demand and the gigantic non-availability problem that Nike faced, I am pretty sure, many people resorted to less common brands like Saucony, Brooks, or even Hoka One One or Adidas. In my mind, I had to try the carbon plated shoes for my races, and having read enough, I was convinced that until Nike is available, I will manage with a Saucony.

Brand switching spells disaster if competitors are good

So, when I switched “temporarily” to Saucony, I had in mind that the moment Nike Vaporfly is back on the shelf, I would get myself a pair. But little did I know that I would begin to love the Endorphin pro so much. I had never tried this brand before. All my judgement had been based on reviews alone. When I wore it, it was like an experience I had never had before. The shoes are so light and the upper is really soft with a breathable mesh.

It was a revelation which I hardly anticipated. Saucony Endorphin Pro was actually good. The cushioning was also superb and I began using it for my long runs which spanned to 20+ km range. This year alone I have done close to 300 km on them till date and also has resulted in some of my personal bests. Bottom line: in my world, this a real threat to Nike. And this happened simply because when I went to the shop to buy, I couldn’t find a Nike.

Me in my Saucony Endorphin pro
Cranking out some of my better runs

But strong brands can bounce back and regain brand loyalty

If this were a lesson for business folks, it would probably say: don’t grow a category if you can’t cater to it; you’d just leave yourself wide open and ripe for the competition. And if the competition provides a product which has features your consumers might like, you will be at the risk of losing sales forever. And this is exactly what happened. I was almost of the opinion that I will run all my long distances in Saucony, leaving Nike behind. Saucony is so comfortable!

But then, one can’t ignore the power of a strong brand. Although I was blazing away in my own runs on the Endorphin Pro, the elite world was still gliding around, winning races in their Vaporflys. And I was still keenly following each of the posts on my Instagram feed from runners, seeing them use their Nikes and fueling my desire to have my own.

Nike is a really strong brand and its emotional appeal outweighs the functional benefits. Thus Nike won the battle again and the moment I received an update from one of the websites saying it’s available, I scooped up both the Alphafly and the Vaporfly. Trust me, if it were any other weak or moderately strong brand, the battle would have been long lost.

If Availability is the King, then forgive my pun, but Brand Loyalty is a very strong Queen, and together they rule!

Who wins the battle between Availability and Brand Loyalty is really subjective. It ends up depending on the strength of the brand. If the brand is strong enough, then it will bounce back, but only when availability is back on track. Without availability, I might have just continued buying Sauconys, and who knows, maybe I would have given up on Nike forever.

Availability vs Brand Loyalty: How it affects business

For those who are curious about the current state of affairs, Nike is still unavailable in most places, except their website here.

But Saucony is available on sites like Tata Cliq website and Amazon. So, now tell me, would you still wait for your Nike if you were as desperate as I was? Probably not. But then thanks to Nike’s availability problem, I tried a new brand for myself and had a good experience. Those personal bests I cracked this year for 10k and half marathons would not have been possible if I hadn’t taken a decision to buy whatever is available and make do with it.

Ironically, my defense quotes Nike’s motto exactly. “Just Do it”, they said, and I did just that, instead of waiting around for the hallowed Vaporfly shoes to fall in my lap.

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Why Nike leads the race for carbon plated shoes dominion