adidas' Secret Weapon: A History of Boost
adidas' Secret Weapon: A History of Boost
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date July 17, 2018
If you take an interest in style—whether that be high fashion, classical menswear or streetwear—you’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept that it is all cyclical. Brands inevitably revisit what was once a success and some things remain unchanged and omnipresent for years at a time. In the world of footwear—particularly sneakers—change is even slower, sometimes moving at a glacial pace. Cup soles have largely dominated the industry for decades, while the vulcanized rubber outsoles popularized by Vans and Converse have remained a stalwart for more than half a century. Every so often, though, a company pushes a revolutionary new technology. Most of the time these innovations go by unnoticed from a larger cultural perspective, but, occasionally, a performance-driven innovation shakes the industry to its core and profoundly alters the path of sneaker history.
After 1987, when the company’s visible Air unit and Air Max family revolutionized cushioning, every other sneaker company was seemingly chasing Nike in terms of innovation. In the early 2010s, it was the introduction of Flyknit that had Nike’s competitors scrambling. However, the streetwear and sneaker community has witnessed a reversal of titanic proportions in recent years: adidas, not Nike, was the one radically changing the landscape with the introduction of Boost cushioning technology. The white foam midsoles are now ubiquitous in premium retailers and streetwear boutiques alike, not to mention performance running stores. Like most other culturally-relevant kicks, the Boost movement’s roots are not in lifestyle sneakers, but rather in performance footwear.
Despite being introduced by adidas in 2013, Boost’s origins start in 2007, in the offices of a company not named adidas. Instead, Boost was developed by the world’s largest chemical producer, Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik (BASF). Originally, the technology took the shape of small white beads that the company called “energy capsules”; despite their impressive cushioning and energy-return properties, BASF didn’t really know what to do with the technology. That’s when the company realized that the individual beads could be fused together using steam to create larger-scale energy return units. ‘Energy return’ is a buzzword in the world of running and performance footwear and, as such, it was only natural for BASF to pitch the technology to adidas, a fellow German company.
That pitch involved what would become one of the most important things ever created with Boost technology: a ball. That white sphere allowed BASF to showcase the extent of the technology’s energy return properties—bounciness, if you’ll excuse the rather unscientific term. The BASF product outperformed the industry-standard EVA foam that had long dominated performance running shoes and, as adidas’ Director of Global Running, Matthias Am told GQ, spurred adidas’ design team to realize they could “revolutionize the running industry with [the] material.”
With adidas’ collective imagination running wild, the German sportswear manufacturer signed an exclusive licensing agreement with BASF to produce midsoles using the technology. Once the legal formalities were taken care of, adidas quickly got about perfecting the technology and by 2012 the brand was testing prototypes of what would become the Energy Boost.
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While much of the attention and praise heaped on Boost has tended to focus on its use on the Ultra Boost, it was with the Energy Boost that adidas first debuted the technology in 2013. The Energy Boost was definitely a running shoe, but at the New York event where the shoe and the technology were introduced to the world, adidas made a rather bold claim: Boost would be used across its entire product range, from running and basketball to golf and lifestyle.
While you may not have heard of Boost in 2013 and 2014, the technology was gradually making in-roads within the industry; that being said, it wasn’t necessarily tracking towards behemoth status. As far as the performance running segment is concerned, Boost’s first big win came in September 2014, when Dennis Kimetto ran the Berlin marathon in a pair of adizero Adios Boost, crossing the finish line in a world record time of 2:02:57. Meanwhile, the technology’s presence was spreading outside of running; Y-3 was introducing Boost to the fashion world, while footwear from other athletic segments—like basketball—boasted the springy material.
While the aforementioned Boost ball used by BASF to pitch the technology to adidas may have changed the course of the brand’s history—and that of Boost—the introduction of the Pure Boost in 2014 is what set the stage for Boost to set the industry ablaze. The Pure Boost was, like the Energy Boost before it, a performance shoe with the added caveat that it was the byproduct of collaboration between the Sport Performance, Originals and Y-3 design teams. That meant that while the shoe fell under adidas, rather than the lifestyle-driven Originals line, it still boasted cues taken from the like of Y-3 that made it ripe for a lifestyle crossover. The big breakthrough with the Pure Boost, though, was that the shoe featured a full-length Boost sole.
The Pure Boost was widely considered one of the best shoes of the year, with Complex citing its affordability and availability as key components behind its appeal. The latter speaks to the limited Boost frenzy at the time—there were no camp-outs for the Pure Boost and Boost wasn’t yet impacting adidas’ day-to-day business, nor its bottom line.
Indirectly, though, the Pure Boost set two important developments in motion for adidas. The first, and arguably the most important, was that the shoe played a crucial role in the brand’s ability to capitalize on having Kanye West as an ambassador and collaborator. The mercurial, but hugely influential producer-cum-rapper reportedly tried on the Pure Boost and was immediately smitten—thanks to the Pure Boost, he would eventually insist on incorporating Boost in Yeezy footwear. He became a frequent billboard for the technology, stepping out in Pure Boosts and Energy Boosts, with whichever model he sported subsequently selling out. Slowly, but surely Boost was becoming a force.
Then, in January 2015, adidas introduced the follow-up to the Pure Boost, a running shoe called the Ultra Boost that, like its predecessor, boasted a full-length Boost sole and was marketed as "the best running shoe ever.” Read that tagline with emphasis on “running shoe” as the Ultra Boost was originally pegged as a performance shoe, modelled by adidas athletes like Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake and Spanish footballer David Villa.
Throughout the first half of 2015, the new model enjoyed moderate success thanks to a spate of collaborations with the likes of kolor, Stella McCartney and Kris Van Assche. A stripped down triple white version was proposed by adidas and made available for pre-order during the spring.
On May 17, 2015, the triple white shoe was still available for pre-order on adidas’ website and was slated for a wider June 1 release, a clear indication that adidas planned on the shoe being available to whoever wanted it. On that day, Kanye West took the stage at the Billboard Music Awards for a highly-censored and fog-ridden performance that had many scratching their heads. Sneakerheads, in particular, were eyeing the crisp white Boost-laden adidas kicks he was wearing. They were the aforementioned triple-white Ultra Boosts and, within hours of Kanye wearing them on stage, the pre-order quantities were exhausted; when the shoe released on June 1, it promptly sold out, and other triple-white Boost models like the Energy Boost ESM and Pure Boost benefitted from the attention.
The secondary market became the go-to for Ultra Boosts and the astronomical resale price that the shoes fetched got people’s attention. Despite the Ultra Boost having been on the market for six months (and equipped with a now-two-year-old technology) people were reacting as if both had just burst onto the scene. While Kanye’s co-sign gave the Ultra Boost, and the technology it sat on, the validation it needed, the shoe was unlike anything else on the market at the time. It was supremely comfortable and fit well with the jogger and track pant-heavy athleisure aesthetic that was percolating within streetwear in late 2015.
Subsequent Ultra Boosts started selling out, almost regardless of color or design and adidas was faced with a few dilemmas. Boost was meant to be incorporated throughout the entire gamut of lines—there would be Originals and Y-3 product that was, in theory, designed for lifestyle and premium retailers—but what retailers kept getting asked for—and then requesting from adidas—were adidas Running models like the Ultra Boost and Energy Boost. Coupled with adidas’ limited capacity to produce Boost (at the time there was rumoured to be only a single factory that was equipped with the necessary machines) and the rapid rise to prominence the technology enjoyed after May 2015, the company was faced with a legitimate shortage where demand for Boost had exceeded potential supply.
adidas’ response was to keep everybody happy and extend Running products—formerly limited to specialty running retailers—to streetwear and lifestyle boutiques. But, given its limited capacity to produce Boost, quantities were divvied up across segments and then amongst retailers. As a result, everybody was getting very few pairs of Boost-laden sneakers. What happens when stores get very few pairs of a hot commodity? It sells out everywhere and word spreads about how limited it is, creating lineups and more hype for an already-limited product. That’s essentially what happened with the Ultra Boost from late-2015 to mid-2017.
While the Ultra Boost became the benchmark for Boost sneakers—and, really, the market-leader within streetwear—adidas began expanding the technology’s application, eager to replicate the success of the Ultra Boost. The Kanye West-designed line of Yeezys, which launched in 2015 with the 750 and 350, contained Boost and helped portray the technology as lifestyle-ready, while adding to Boost’s cultural capital. That seemed to be adidas’ modus operandi in late 2015 and throughout 2016, as evidenced by the introduction of the NMD, a lifestyle sneaker housed within adidas Originals’ product line.
The original NMD—later referred to as the NMD_R1—was introduced, like the Energy Boost and Ultra Boost before it, at an event in New York City in December 2015. But, unlike the other Boost sneakers, which were modelled by athletes and pitched as performance footwear, the NMD was paraded down a runway that revealed only the models’ feet and placed emphasis on the shoe being the synthesis of adidas’ history and unquenchable thirst for innovation. Alongside the Ultra Boost, the NMD would come to be one of adidas’ preeminent vehicles for promoting Boost.
adidas headed into 2016 with three instant-sell-out franchises boasting Boost soles: Ultra Boost, NMD and Yeezy. Part of the success of Boost is tied to adidas’ decision to open up the former two models to collaborative partners from 2016 onwards, a move which allowed both long-term diffusion partners, like kolor, and one-off top tier collaborators from adidas’ Consortium program, like KITH or Sneakersnstuff, to play with Boost. Another key component of adidas’ success with Boost was the increased production quantities of the Yeezy line, with more drops and more shoes per drop throughout 2016 and carrying into 2017. At $250 (at least at retail) a shoe, a 200,000 production run makes for a nice profit. Of course, Kanye West was not the only celebrity to endorse Boost, with Pharrell Williams unveiling the HU NMD in 2016, which saw a new take on the lifestyle silhouette and recognizable branding on the toe box and tongue. The Kanye-Pharrell effect was transformative in Boost’s evolution from a performance technology to a cultural behemoth.
2016 also marked the year where the look of Boost changed, with the introduction of colored midsoles. Previously, any sneaker outfitted with a Boost sole featured a crisp white midsole, but, in the summer of 2016, adidas released Ultra Boost Uncaged models that featured red and black midsoles. While it may seem like a small development, it seemed to show that adidas was making efforts to diversify the offering and innovate, rather than rest on its Boost-laden laurels. More on that in a bit, though.
With that in mind, 2017 marked the wider roll-out of Boost, with additional production capabilities—though they still couldn’t keep pace with demand—allowing adidas to pump out more Ultra Boosts, NMDs and Yeezys, while adding Boost to heritage models like the Superstar and Stan Smith, and expanding its use in other segments like soccer, football, basketball, and Y-3.
Powered by Boost’s almost unprecedented popularity (name another quote-unquote general release sneaker that consistently resold for multiple times retail) and newfound wider availability, adidas started to take back some market share from Nike in 2017 and the brand’s earnings began to creep up in North America.
But the popularity of Boost has, in a sense, been its downfall on a few fronts. For starters, despite adding production capacity, adidas’ ability to create Boost is still limited and the company has been forced to seek alternatives to the squishy white soles. Since late 2016, the company has been teasing Futurecraft, largely seen as the heir-apparent to Boost. Futurecraft is an all-encompassing concept of sorts, that is based on harnessing emerging technologies. For the moment, there are two distinct projects that are of interest. The first is 4D, and entails a collaboration with Carbon on a 3D-printed “Digital Light Synthesis” sole, the second is SPEEDFACTORY, which is predicated on automated footwear manufacturing and factories that serve the countries they are located in.
SPEEDFACTORY product is still using Boost, but that means that premium clients are seemingly no longer interested in run-of-the-mill Boost sneakers. Instead, they are holding out for 4D or SPEEDFACTORY product. Of course, adidas is doing itself no favors as far as Boost’s popularity is concerned by teasing the advent of Futurecraft basketball sneakers—as seen with adidas VP Marc Dolce—and slowly releasing 4D and SPEEDFACTORY sneakers city-by-city. The problem, for Boost, is that the technology’s popularity was largely based on its “newness” and technological innovation; in 2018, not only is it not new, but 4D is simply more advanced from a technological standpoint and SPEEDFACTORY is revolutionizing the concept of manufacturing.