If you want the top spot, you have to take it. That could probably be described as rule number one in DTC.
When the top spot is held by Nike, though, that’s a tough task. But Athletic Propulsion Labs is attempting to carve its own path to domination by combining luxury with comfort — and it’s caught the eye of consumers.
We’ve already taken a closer look at the current state of the footwear industry, so now it’s time to dive deeper into Athletic Propulsion Labs to find out how they’ve managed to pique the interest of luxury brands around the world.
I was curious to find out just how much goes into their marketing strategy behind the scenes. If you want to see how two college students managed to turn their small e-retail company into a multi-million dollar brand, strap on your sneakers and get ready for a rundown.
What They’re selling
Athletic Propulsion Labs, more commonly known as APL, is a DTC company that sells luxury athletic footwear. Famously banned by the NBA for the 2010-2011 season for allegedly giving players a competitive advantage with their Load ‘N Launch Technology, APL is best known for “creating performance sneakers that work almost too well.”
The brand sells shoes for kids and adults, specializing in running, training, basketball, and outdoors. A typical pair of APLs will set you back anywhere from $120 to $450. But if you really want to make a statement, purchase a pair of the 24k gold-painted APL Lusso Supremes for the low, low price of $20,000. Seriously.
Based on its messaging and strategic partnerships, APL appears to be targeting physically active people who value performance, comfort, and style in their athletic footwear. Women make up roughly 65% of its customer base, with the founders citing their partnership with Lululemon and ‘aspirational brand positioning’ for their unprecedented success with this demographic. In fact, founders Adam and Ryan Goldston noted that APL’s revenue tripled year over year once they introduced women’s shoes.
Competing with Giants
APL falls into the fashion and accessories market within eCommerce. Globally, the footwear market is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s predicted to increase by over 18 billion dollars in 2025. However, online fashion sales accounted for only 23.51 percent of total retail e-commerce sales in the U. S in 2021.
Nike has remained the colossal leader in footwear in the United States for some time now, claiming over $37 billion in 2020. This presents an interesting challenge for newer athletic footwear companies like APL who are looking to break through and claim their place in the market. In this spirit, APL found a unique way to stand out from the competition by defining the “luxury performance segment” of the athletic footwear market with the initial launch of its running and training shoes for men and women.
While there are several other DTC shoe start-ups that share a similar price point and demographic (stay tuned as we explore Allbirds and Rothy’s next), APL remains one of the only players selling shoes that are specifically designed for athletic training.
The Athletes Behind the Shoes
APL was founded in 2009 by twin brothers Adam and Ryan Goldston while they were attending the University of Southern California. To this day, they remain the sole owners of the privately held brand, and they personally value their company in the “hundreds of millions.” I couldn’t find any documentation to back this claim.
The brothers come from a lineage of marketing leadership in the athletic sneaker market. Their father Mark Goldston was the CMO of Reebok who oversaw the creation of the iconic Reebok PUMP. He, later on, became the President of L.A. Gear.
The brothers’ vision for APL was to create the first athletic footwear company deeply rooted in both innovative performance technology and luxury. While they are an ecommerce company first, their shoes are now sold in most major luxury retailers worldwide, including Nordstrom, Lululemon, and Revolve.
APL is the first performance brand to be inducted into the CFDA, and the Goldston brothers were named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2016 as well as WWD’s inaugural 40 under 40 list. The company currently has roughly 25 employees total, with around 5 focused on marketing efforts.
Teaming up with big names
While APL currently doesn’t have an influencer marketing program in place, they’ve caught the eye of many A-list celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Tiegen, and Oprah – bringing in a flood of interest from their enormous followings.
The company has also expanded its reach and customer base by leaning into heavy-hitting brand partnerships with Lululemon, McLaren, Dune, and more. With an impressive lineup of endorsements and partnerships, the team may not feel the need to unload aggressive marketing campaigns onto their consumers, but they make sure they’re not forgotten.
Stepping into the Customer Journey
When I first started browsing APL’s website, I was immediately met with a chatbot asking if I needed help with anything. Throughout my buying journey, I ended up chatting with customer support 3 times (not because there was anything wrong, but in the name of research). I was impressed with the customer service. Every time I reached out, I was connected to a real person within minutes.
As I continued to click around the homepage, I received a pop-up for 10% off my first purchase in exchange for my email address. This, of course, then led to a request for my phone number to actually unlock the code. This 2-step tactic has become a very common ploy for eComm companies to collect zero-party data, a smart move considering the looming challenges ahead with the elimination of third-party data.
It’s not heavily promoted on the site, but after a bit of clicking around, I discovered the option to sign up for APL’s rewards program. By creating an account on their site, you can earn points for each purchase you make, for referring customers, and by following a few simple actions to boost their social followings. By creating an account and following APL on all socials, I immediately earned 50 points which could be used as a discount toward my first purchase.
While I received a couple of promotional emails here and there post-subscription, it wasn’t until I added a few items to my shopping cart and abandoned it that the first email campaign kicked off.
I received a series of three emails: The first offered me a $20 coupon to complete my purchase. The two that followed were reminder emails, creating a sense of urgency by letting me know my $20 off coupon would be expiring that week (I know that this is rarely true, but somehow it still works on me at least 50% of the time).
After about 2 weeks, I went back to my cart with my $20 off coupon in hand and my rewards points activated (I was able to get an additional $5 off from following them on social media – not bad). I opted for the Women’s TechLoom Pros, one of the cheaper options, but I had my eye on them for a while.
As I went to check out, I was prompted to ‘make my order carbon neutral’ for an additional $1.76. A nice touch in a world where the target demographic is largely concerned with trying to minimize their carbon footprint.
Once my order was placed, I immediately received a thank you email and text message, along with a follow-up to both that included tracking information.
My shoes arrived within a week in minimal but sleek packaging. As a frequent wearer of Nike and Adidas, I can say without a doubt that the APLs quickly became my go-to daily sneakers. Not only do they look cool, but they’re comfortable and lightweight. It’s safe to say that they really are selling what they’re marketing.
Since making my purchase, APL’s efforts to retain me as a customer have been light and lacking customization, but I’m not sure that it’s really a problem. On average, I receive about one email and text message per week alerting me to new collections, styles, and seasonal drops. Through my research and personal experience with the shoes, I get the impression that APL lets the quality of its product speak for itself, eliminating the need for excessive discounting or aggressive email campaigns.
After Walking in APL’s Shoes
There’s no question that APL has carved out its place in the market with its innovative and modern approach to athletic footwear. While not always an attainable strategy for a startup, APL has rapidly grown its customer base through highly publicized partnerships and passive endorsements from some of the world’s most followed celebrities. Customized email and SMS campaigns don’t seem to be their strong suit, but their stellar customer service team reminds you that they’re not one of the colossal footwear giants that’s out of touch with their base. The quality of the shoes combined with the continual innovation leads me to believe that APL won’t be disappearing from the footwear market any time soon.
Sign up to catch next week’s article where we’ll dig into another DTC footwear contender: Rothy’s.