Why the Boutique Brands Are Winning
The small women-led team behind Oiselle surprised everyone last year by snagging pro runner Lauren Fleshman. And now they've done it again by stealing away Kara Goucher from Nike. What is it about Oiselle that keeps luring in the top talent?
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
When Kara Goucher first visited the office of Oiselle Running in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood in February, she thought it was about as different from Nike as you could get. The humble office near a popular urban running loop has just 10 full-time staff members, and only recently hired its first male employee. Goucher herself learned of the brand for the first time just over a year ago, when Oiselle signed fellow pro runner Lauren Fleshman.
For Goucher, the small, passionate, female-driven team behind Oiselle represented a welcome change. She announced last week that after over a decade with Nike, she has decided to sign a sponsorship agreement with the seven-year-old women’s running apparel company. By doing so, Goucher is betting on a growing young company with far less brand recognition than her former sponsor.
She’s also taking a pay cut that she calls “pretty severe—for now.” She reasons, however, that her salary will grow as Oiselle does, and that the personal rewards of helping to build an emerging brand make any financial loss worth it.
“I wanted to be an Oiselle athlete first,” Goucher said. “I made my decision on Oiselle knowing I could possibly not be picked up in any other categories.”
Though she could still seek a deal with a running shoe company in addition to Oiselle, Goucher said she’s not counting on anything, and went after Oiselle because that’s where she wants to focus her energy.
Goucher isn’t the only high profile athlete to cut ties with Nike in recent months for personal or ideological reasons. Early this year, runner Nick Symmonds left Nike for another growing Seattle company, Brooks Running, saying he wants more freedom to market himself than Nike allows.
Goucher’s unlikely move to Oiselle follows several years of growth and momentum for the apparel company. It’s seen revenue grow 100 percent year-to-year over the last three years, CEO Sally Bergesen said.
In December of 2012, Oiselle raised its public profile significantly by bringing on Fleshman. Just before signing the contract, Fleshman told Bergesen that she was pregnant with her first child. Rather than scratch the deal, Bergesen celebrated with her, and later threw her a baby shower at the Oiselle office.
For Goucher, who has a three-year-old son of her own, that’s just the kind of place she wants to be. She marveled at Bergesen signing a newly pregnant Fleshman, saying it’s “unheard of” in the professional running world. Goucher was so enamored with Oiselle’s emphasis on family and female leadership, she turned down a more lucrative offer from a shoe company to sign on with Oiselle. In all of Goucher’s negotiations and talks with sponsors, Bergesen was the only woman she met with.
“I felt like I connected with Sally,” Goucher said. “The fact that she sees family as an asset and not detrimental is huge. My son is more important than my running.”
Bergesen, in turn, believes Goucher’s roles as a wife and mother only make her more relatable to female runners. That in turn, Bergesen hopes, will introduce new customers to Oiselle’s burgeoning brand. Since the pair announced the partnership last week, Bergesen has been watching blog and social media posts from runners and Goucher fans who say they’d never heard of Oiselle before.
Since Bergesen never set out to woo Goucher to her team, she calls the partnership a “delightful surprise.” Last fall, Goucher had the opportunity to consider Oiselle and other sponsors for the first time in years, having left Nike-funded coach Jerry Schumacher and moved from Oregon back to Colorado.
“I had a clean slate,” Goucher said. “I wanted to try something new.”
Goucher found that some companies were interested in her, but others thought she was too old, too associated with Nike in the public’s eye, or would cost too much. Watching Fleshman’s enthusiasm for Oiselle from afar, Goucher wondered if they might have a place for her as well. She asked her husband, Adam, to place a phone call to Bergesen and throw out the idea.
“My first thought was excitement, and my second was the feeling that she was likely out of our league,” Bergesen recalled.
The deal between Bergesen and Goucher evolved after many phone calls and a visit to Seattle on Super Bowl weekend. Bergesen at one point told Goucher that she should look elsewhere because Oiselle couldn’t afford her, but Goucher wouldn’t give up. She and her husband met with a financial advisor, who told them they’d have to adopt a stricter budget if Goucher went with Oiselle, but they could make it work.
“I wanted to be a part of this group,” Goucher said. “I believe in the company and believe in what they are doing.”
For Bergesen, the deal with Goucher comes three years after she began to take interest in the elite side of running. At that time, Bergesen had already built an Oiselle ambassador team of locally competitive athletes, and thought pro runners could bring enthusiasm and awareness to the Oiselle brand. Bergesen recognized the value of having well known runners, like Goucher and Fleshman, talk about Oiselle on their blogs and Twitter.
“We’re very social media driven,” Bergesen said. “In the beginning, we didn’t have any other way to talk about what we are doing.”
Bergesen first signed professional runner Kate Grace, a Yale graduate who is lesser known than Fleshman or Goucher and who Bergesen sees as a “diamond in the rough.” Then, the Oiselle team went after Fleshman, who had built a large following on her personal blog and social media.
“We stalked Lauren for a while, and apparently she didn’t think we were too creepy,” Bergesen said. “We became friends first. Just like Kara, it seemed unbelievable in the beginning when she first said she’d run for us.”
Goucher’s exact role at Oiselle has yet to be determined. She’ll wear Oiselle clothes, promote the brand, and give feedback on designs. Goucher would like to spend more time with the staff in Seattle, but says it will likely happen after her busy spring track season and fall marathon season. She enjoys the idea of being able to participate in clothing and design decisions, instead of just being told what to wear.
“One of the first thing I said to Sally was, ‘You need to make a puffer,’” Goucher said, speaking of down jackets. “She said, ‘It’s coming.’”