How DTC fitness brand Nobull is competing with the giants of athletic apparel –

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Brands on the Rise is a regular Ad Age feature spotlighting the marketing and business tactics of successful challenger brands. Read other installments here.
Athletic footwear and apparel have some of the most recognizable brands of any category, which makes the space that much harder to disrupt. But as the rise of e-commerce has democratized the number of brands getting exposure, lesser-known fitness brands have begun to break through.
One brand inching its way into the mainstream is Nobull, which as its name suggests has taken a no-gimmick approach to marketing its range of training shoes and workout apparel. It has risen from being a darling among CrossFit enthusiasts to one that is making waves in larger fitness communities.
“We’re trying to leapfrog traditional behavior … and to do that you have to do things differently,” said Todd Meleney, Nobull’s chief marketing officer.
Below, more on Nobull’s origin story, marketing tactics and what is next for the Boston-based brand.
Nobull launched in early 2015 with a primary focus on providing footwear for CrossFit athletes. Founders Marcus Wilson and Michael Schaeffer were both former Reebok executives while Meleney, the brand’s first employee turned CMO, came from the startup world.
The original team sought to position Nobull as an antidote to sports fitness brands that promise remarkable results without putting any emphasis on work ethic. As fitness enthusiasts themselves, Wilson, Schaeffer and Meleney knew the effort required to make gains through training, and set out to pair those who were serious about their workouts with the highest quality products. Out of this no-bullshit mindset, Nobull was born.
The brand’s first product was a trainer shoe meant for CrossFit athletes, which immediately pitted Nobull against leading brands Nike and Reebok. But Nobull stayed the course and, over the next two years, it honed its audience in the CrossFit community, signing athletes as ambassadors and increasing brand awareness. The core team also built a digital, direct-to-consumer (DTC) foundation—in part a necessity because Reebok exclusively held the CrossFit title sponsorship, which limited other brands’ marketing.
By 2018, Nobull started to expand its outreach to include more mainstream training communities, such as Barry’s, Orangetheory, Equinox and Lifetime Fitness. The company introduced a running shoe, along with basic fitness apparel. It also struck partnerships with non-CrossFit athletes, such as Olympic swimmer Caeleb Dressel.
By 2021, Nobull was landing key sponsorships with mainstream sports institutions, including the New England Patriots and the team’s starting quarterback, Mac Jones. That April, it completed a fresh round of funding that pushed its valuation to just over $500 million. It was also on track to double the 80% growth in yearly sales and revenue it experienced in 2020, per Business Insider. Nobull did not provide an update on its sales figures.
The company’s dealmaking has continued into 2022, with Nobull becoming the official apparel training partner of the PGA Tour and, most recently, the official training partner of the NFL Combine.
While Meleney told Ad Age he doesn’t believe Nobull has yet reached a tipping point in its growth, he does recall one moment being particularly sweet: when Nobull claimed the title sponsorship for the CrossFit Games. 
The announcement was made in March 2021, but was really seven years in the making, Meleney said. As Nobull’s first community, CrossFit has been more supportive of the brand’s mission than any other group, and living up to its expectations is a responsibility that Nobull does not take lightly.
“You look at the way CrossFit Games’ athletes train—there’s nobody on the planet that’s close to them … And we’re taking that training methodology with us as we go into these much more established partnerships,” said Meleney.
What made winning the title sponsorship even more special, though, was that Nobull did so over Reebok, which formerly held the role. Reebok represents the uphill climb that Nobull has had to endure in order to become a respected and competitive brand in the fitness space. Supplanting the giant does not mean the work is over for Meleney’s team, but rather that hard work pays off.
As a DTC brand, Nobull is able to capture and leverage all information across the customer journey—from discovery to purchase to product delivery and feedback—to create personalized marketing. This makes first-party data an essential piece of Nobull’s go-to-market strategy.
But even more than knowing the customer, being the customer is key to creating effective customer experiences, said Meleney.
“If we’re speaking to people who are training for a marathon, do we have people that run on our team?” he said. “You unlock components of messaging or marketing or storytelling that you really just can’t if you’re not the customer.”
The brand has expressed this goal through ad campaigns dating back to its very first in 2018, which depicted athletes, employees and customers indistinguishable from one another. Other spots in its #IAMNOBULL series portray similar themes by telling personal fitness stories from a variety of people. The brand creates all content and advertising in house.
Nobull also maintains strong engagement on social media, particularly through its Instagram account, which more so resembles a feed from a “fitfluencer” than that of a typical brand. Almost every clip shows a person mid-workout, drenched in sweat. These videos drive home the messaging at the core of Nobull’s brand, namely, the necessity of work ethic to experience growth. This idea comes through in the brand’s longer spots, as reflected by titles such as “The Only One Standing in Your Way” and “There’s an Art in the Process.”
A post shared by NOBULL (@nobull)
A score of athlete ambassadors helps Nobull amplify these messages across social channels, said Meleney. Recent tie-ups include quarterbacks Bryce Young and Mac Jones for the start of football season, and several athletes for the CrossFit Games in August.
A post shared by NOBULL (@nobull)
Nobull’s origin as a brand for fitness enthusiasts is an advantage it has over competitors with bigger but less tight-knit communities, said Calla Murphy, VP of digital strategy and integrated marketing at Belardi Wong, a marketing services agency. “[Gyms are] a great place where people find a lot of community … and a huge opportunity for these kinds of emerging brands,” she said.
The brand’s selling proposition—high-quality training products for serious exercisers—could be effective even as it turns to more mainstream sports, such as the NFL. Despite not offering a cleat, Nobull can still target these athletes for their specific training needs.
“They’re not saying, ‘We’re outfitting an athlete for every single moment of their day,’” Murphy said. “They’re staying true to their core pieces [while] some of the larger brands have to be everything to these athletes.”
The fitness apparel industry is ripe for reinvention as consumers look to try new or unfamiliar brands, onto which they can turn their own communities. Other new players like On and Vuori have found success doing just this, and show that there is ample demand for alternatives to Nike and Reebok.
Read more: How Vuori is rising in field dominated by Nike, Lululemon
As it looks to continue its growth, Nobull should ensure that it increases its presence in physical stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and popular online marketplaces such as Amazon, said Murphy. As of now, the brand sells products entirely through its own website, with the exception of a lone storefront in Miami that opened in January 2020. Nobull’s DTC foundation was apt for the pandemic when people weren’t shopping in stores, but since the physical practice has resumed, it can’t rely entirely on this approach.
“You have to show up where your customer is,” said Murphy.
Going forward, Nobull plans to focus on building out its partnerships with the PGA Tour and NFL, which it plans to do by deepening its connection with those training communities. As the brand has done with previous communities like running and CrossFit, it hopes to learn what makes golfers and football players tick, and leverage that information to create emotional resonance with its products.
“Authentic roots is something that we scream from the rooftops about because that’s what’s gotten us here,” said Meleney.
In this article:
Asa Hiken is a technology reporter for Ad Age covering the intersection of Web3 and marketing, including crypto, NFTs and the metaverse.


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