The Obsolescence Treadmill (feat. Nike Mayfly)

Nike Mayfly

Nike Mayfly by moleitau, on Flickr

Followers of my public streams will be aware that I am engaged on a 16-week training programme* to run the Virgin London Marathon on April 17th. This does rather mean that much of my waking moments are preoccupied with all things running. Occasionally my vocational and extra curricular interests collide, as is the case here with the Nike Bowerman Mayfly running shoe.

Alerted to its existence via Matt Jones’ concise post on the Berg blog, I started to think a little more about what this does to strengthen my opinion of Nike‘s marketing function as one that just gets the psychology of the runner.

It may be stating the obvious to some, but Nike aren’t just a manufacturer of sportswear. Their heritage shows a healthy track record (ahem) of producing products based on solid insight within the running community. In the case of the Mayfly this is insight that runners are want to wear their shoes for too long. The ramifications of this are not inconsiderable: worn-down shoes lead to poor form and consequentially impact-related injuries. In addition, enthusiastic amateur runners may well own multiple pairs of shoes aligned to particular conditions: trail, track and asphalt surfaces for example. Keeping track (again…) of the kilometres out through each pair of shoes is a challenge.

In the case of the Mayfly we have a £20 shoe with a tight limit on their effective usage; you get just 100km wear out of them. A planned obsolescence. The shoes have been designed with a tight engineering tolerance such that their performance is notably degraded once the user (runner) exceeds 100km. This fact isn’t hidden, it’s considered a selling point and the shoes themselves feature a manual odometer for you to clock up the km run on the side as an aide memoir and perhaps badge of intent to fellow runners.

So, what’s happening here, isn’t this just a trick to get us to buy more shoes more often? The cynic might suggest so, but let me suggest:

Scarcity: We are a little biased toward placing greater value on items that have a obvious limitation … the scarcity of the distance you can run in these shoes ensure you use them for only the right conditions (e.g. track running) and not perhaps as your daily runner – they’re your best pair.

Anxiety: Nike have form here – Nike+ on your headphones counts you up to the mid-point and then down to the end point of your run, increasing the performance anxiety. The same ticking clock is at work in these shoes, from the moment you put them on you’re running them into the ground. Of course this is nothing new – all shoes wear out – but these shoes makes it notably more explicit.

Reactance: When faced with a limit we’re rather prone to reacting against it (see anxiety above and consider the effect this has on performance). Does this limit actually challenge the runner to exceed it faster, sooner by covering the mileage at a greater pace or running more often? Mayfly runners might find themselves running harder and faster as consequence. There is little in life that is a simple and free as going running, by placing a limit on such a libertarian behaviour the reaction – if largely subconscious – could be profound.

I’ll concede that this might all be a case of me over-thinking a rather crude marketing strategy – planned obsolescence is nothing new after all – and that instead of positive reactance, consumers might actually react by seeing the limit as a weakness in Nike‘s durability and applicability to their sport. An analogous example might be the restrictions printer manufactures placed on their low usage and non-refillable ink cartridges. Indeed, one of the most significant issues that Nike will face is possibility that consumer watchdogs may deem the practise simply unethical. Perhaps in defence of this – and the inevitable environmental criticism – the shoes have been designed to be recycled by the responsible owner.

For the moment I am happy to continue with the upgrade treadmill of my (Asics) shoes on a 500km cycle which (at a current weekly effort of 30km+) should just see me through the 16 weeks.

John

* – Training programme via the wonderful Sam Murphy from her seminal work Marathon & Half Marathon: From Start to Finish

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