West Palm Beach, FL. Founded in 2014, Tracksmith is a running brand that aims to set itself apart with its narrative. It offers high performance gear, but it rests on its ties to New England and running tradition. Though they now sponsor athletes, they separate themselves from other brands in their embrace of amateurism and their attempts to strengthen running culture. Tracksmith doesn’t just sell shirts, they are attempting to sell community.
Tracksmith operates with a potent combination of appealing products and enviable copywriting. Consider their self-description on the website: “Tracksmith is an independent running brand. We honor the Amateur Spirit upon which the sport was founded and champion the Running Class – the non-professional yet competitive runners dedicated to the pursuit of personal excellence. We offer well-considered and authentic products for training, racing and rest days. In everything we do, we aim to celebrate, support and add to running’s distinct culture.”
Many brands offer products; Tracksmith offers a philosophy. They believe in race day, the church of the long run, consistency, excellence, and New England identity. They don’t pitch themselves as a brand from anywhere; they are a brand from somewhere. Not only do their usually muted colors fit the northeast, they build product releases and marketing emails around the seasons. Everyone is welcome in the Tracksmith family, but Tracksmith is not for everyone. They only care about running. They celebrate the love of running exemplified by the amateur spirit, which you can celebrate by buying a $110 sweatshirt labeled “Amateur.” Tracksmith is a new brand and high-end, but it is all about tradition.
With their stunning photo shoots and increasing film content, Tracksmith offers a beautiful community for belonging. Their emails remind runners about the importance of lacing up on cold days and the strategies runners employ to stay warm. Their “no days off” calendar helps reinforce discipline. Their sponsored athletes are among the coolest. And, like many of the best current brands, they thrive on storytelling. They suggest that “running is a storyteller’s sport.” It has all been working well. Tracksmith has risen to be “running’s cult brand.”
Tracksmith is a testimony to the power of storytelling in marketing and the strength of the concepts of tradition and place. It is allowing them to sell products and rarely offer sales of any kind. Buying their “session shorts” and other gear labeled with the distinctive hare can make you part of the “in crowd.” The products appeal to beauty and philosophy, but can they make you part of a genuine community?
Tracksmith has not neglected trying to fulfill some of the promise of its marketing. Though they sell most of their goods online, they are holding an increasing number of in-person events, and they have city-specific newsletters for them. They don’t just praise amateurs; they have their own amateur support program. They don’t just praise stories; they have a journal and a fellowship program, to help more creative voices share the joys of running. Their shirts may be expensive, but they sometimes use them to celebrate historic running clubs and big moments in running history. And with college track & field programs increasingly at-risk and eliminated, Tracksmith has been working to keep college programs alive with their own foundation. Tracksmith may be making a lot of money from our hunger for tradition, but they are also reinvesting some of that revenue into running and writing in a way that directly and positively affects the American running community.
Tracksmith might reveal something about the right way to approach consumers, but it certainly reveals something about how consumers see themselves. Purchasing decisions are some of the most personal decisions that people make, and they are increasingly tied to identity. Brands are connected to political partisanship. They indicate the communities that we associate with. In this case, wearing Tracksmith can signal belonging to the running community, one built on quality and excellence and tradition. Tracksmith even addresses some of their emails “To our community.”
If Tracksmith testifies to our longing for community, it also testifies to the inadequacies of community built on consumer identity. No doubt for the active Tracksmith runners and writers, the Tracksmith community is genuine. If the foundation is involved in your track & field team, the connection is real. Runners might even hope that listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tracksmith podcast will increase the popularity of running. But there are thousands of Americans who are happy enough to buy and wear a hat. Some of us are just looking to be able to nod knowingly to someone at the starting line, or even just in the grocery line.
Real community helps you move. Those connections aren’t found by sharing products, but by sharing something more. Consider the community built around November Project. November Project is a “free fitness movement” operating in cities all over the world. It was started in 2011 by two friends, Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, who wanted to maintain fitness for crew during the winter and found themselves more motivated when they exercised together. Now there are November Projects in dozens of cities, run by volunteers, who devise creative and challenging workouts that take place twice a week in the early morning. November Project is for everyone, and it is always free. Though they now have some sponsorship from Brooks, their branding is built around the spray paint logos they put on shirts (of any type, which you bring yourself). November Project has cracked the code on community, but they have not and will not attach it to any product.
You can wear Tracksmith to November Project and have the best of the both worlds—cross-training and in-person community with the commitment to running culture. But despite being cheaper, November Project asks much more of its members. You have to show up. You have to be vulnerable—sweating with others and hugging them. Sometimes you even have to physically carry each other as part of the workout. You can’t just buy the hat. There’s not even a hat for sale.
Tracksmith and November Project are not antagonists or competing with each other: both encourage us to exercise and to connect with others. But one actually requires it. The difference isn’t just in the “brands.” Rather, the difference is in how much we want to put ourselves out. The problem with community built on consumerism is that all it requires of us is our money. That money may even go to good things, but it is still only money. Genuine community requires our selves. That is much harder to exchange than our income.
Tracksmith makes beautiful things and promotes a beautiful vision of the world. So much the better. It is not fast fashion. It embraces the concepts of tradition and place and community. It helps fund track & field. These are values worth affirming. But if we believe that our consumption alone constitutes membership in a community, we are mistaken. We need to go to some speed workouts and long runs and learn some strangers’ names. The allure of brands like Tracksmith reminds of us basic needs we have, like the need for community. The responsibility for responding to those needs is our own, however. It cannot be handed off to a company.
Good stuff. The New York Times recently profiled a group similar to the November Project called F3 (with the Fs standing for fitness, fellowship, and faith) that is for men specifically and targeted at addressing male loneliness.
Great contrast, Elizabeth. It might be more accurate to say that Tracksmith is trying to *initiate* a tradition and a community. They clearly don’t have time on their side in the sense of a past history.
Would it be useful to compare them to LL Bean and Eddie Bauer, which appealed to an ethos, not just a style? Or maybe compare them to Apple, which began as an enthusiastic community and retained the enthusiasm — but it has become more isolated in its conformity to planned obsolescence* as well as more callous in terms of slave-like conditions at its factories in China?
*Planned obsolescence: I have a 2010 iMac which still works well but cannot update its OS beyond the one I downloaded a few years ago. That means it cannot update its browsers. That means it cannot access some corporate web sites which require minimum browser versions “for security”. And updating my iPhone SE to iOS 16 last month caused my old MacMini to reject an iTunes backup unless I update that computer’s OS to “match” the phone’s. I know this is a long digression but it’s an example of how a “community” that narrows its market to those who always get the “latest and greatest” loses members around the edges.