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ON is In: the global rise of a Swiss running shoe

Building a global brand from a running shoe may seem like an impossible feat in an industry dominated for decades by a swoosh and a handful other brands making billions. But, in 2010, Olivier Bernhard didn’t set out to create a shoe specifically, he wanted to create a new running experience. As a high-level pro-athlete, winning multiple Ironman and World Duathlon Championships, he knew a few things about running and wanted to use his expertise to improve performance and the running sensation. Olivier started with a key idea: soft landings and explosive takeoffs. Focus on that concept led to the development of CloudTec technology, which has been the literal and figurative launching platform that has allowed On to rapidly grow and evolve over the last twelve years.

Lately, I’ve been noticing On on the feet of some of my more discerning friends and acquaintances and the brand caught my curiosity. There’s something immediately striking about the branding (although, I have to admit, until very recently I though it was QC!). The designs are minimal, but with a texture of well-thought details. Perhaps it was because the folks I saw wearing On were the type of people who value quality and functionality over flash and frivolity. It seems like On’s success is tied into consumer’s appetite for a premium, performance product. On’s most effective advertising has been word-of-mouth, starting with the runners who tested out the prototypes and demanded more, to their global team of athletes winning championships across multiple disciplines, to Roger Federer transitioning from a fan to an investor and working to develop their tennis shoe offerings. Performance remains the through line for all their product offerings. On doesn’t seem to be interested in fashion-only pieces, or offering low-cost versions. In 2016, On began offering athletic apparel and, like the shoes, it is designed with purpose. Clean lines, lightweight, functional features, subtle details. Even the colours are tasteful and subdued, favouring timeless over trendy. Yet, on it’s own terms, the gear is stylish.

As autumn descends upon us, we had a chance to test out some On gear. For shoes, I tried the Cloudstratus, which is designed as their long distance runner. This was my first experience with a CloudTec sole, and I’m a fan. Back to that idea of soft landing, explosive take off; this is achieved with hollow cells on the sole which collapse into each other as your foot lands, then, from their compressed state, give a solid launching pad for your foot to take off again. I run enough to know that my technique sucks. For me, this shoe has been helpful in that it compensates somewhat for my heavy, plodding stride, and allows me to run longer and more comfortably. For someone who has technique dialled, I can see how this technology would help them push even further and faster. Cloustratus has two layers of the CloudTec cells, which I found a little aggressive for just bumming around town. But for the purpose of running, or long vigorous walks, the shoe was a perfect companion.

We also tested the Cloud X, which is a more versatile, do everything shoe. Good for running and training, but also comfortable walking the dog to your favourite coffee shop. The Cloud X has all the techy bits that make On standout, the CloudTec sole, Speedboard, and their Helion foam. I won’t get into the weeds on what each of those features are, but if you are curious about the technology click the links to get specifics from On’s website. I will say that the Swiss Technology, the brand likes to tout, is more than a marketing tag. It seems the innovation that spawned the company remains a core value as they expand.  

We tried the Explorer Pants, which are suitable for a run, but most effective for hiking and outdoor adventures. They are lightweight, provide excellent mobility, and do a good job of keeping out the wet and windy autumn weather. Same with the Weather Jacket, which is ultra-lightweight and packed with features and adjustability to keep you comfortable if you want to charge through the elements.

The Switch Jacket is my favourite of the pieces we tested. It’s so light and comfortable it feels almost like wearing nothing, but it doesn’t take long, out in the cold, to realize it has surprising warmth. This jacket came in a very cool, drab green with orange interior. It’s meant to be worn inside and out, but that brings me to my one complaint with it. With the green side out, there are large (very functional), black, mesh pockets along the interior of the torso. When reversed, I’m not a fan of the way the mesh pockets look on the exterior. I really like the orange (they call it mango) colour, but would never wear that side out because of the pockets. It doesn’t deter me though; green side out with a hint of orange at the collar, I will wear the hell out of the Switch Jacket.

Except for the Weather Jacket–which is made from futuristic Japanese fabrics–all the products we tested were made from a significant percentage of recycled materials. There is a Sustainability tab to give you specific information on each product on On’s website. From their inception, On has prioritized protection of the natural world which is their playground. The Swiss Engineering not only goes into innovations for performance, but also pushes them towards decoupling their growth from resource depletion. Products like the first 100% recyclable shoe, and the first shoe made from carbon emissions, indicate the path On is taking into the future. More info on their numerous sustainability initiatives can be found here.

There are certain rare brands that have the ability to change the game by sticking to a simple vision. Starbuck’s took over the world by elevating the daily coffee. Lululemon built an empire on making peoples bums look fantastic. Will On disrupt the sportswear world by making running better? They certainly seemed poised to. Their first decade in business has been a stunning success, it will be interesting to see what they can do in the next decade. In the meantime, go for a run!

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