Fred Couples has always been a bit of a maverick on the pro tour. Not wearing a glove, the open stance, and the loose, rhythmic ‘boom-boom’ swing set him apart. But Freddy really caused a sensation when he wore a pair of Ecco Street hybrid shoes for the 2010 US Masters.
Plagued with back pain for most of his career, Couples started wearing the Ecco Street cleatless shoes when he graduated to the US seniors Champions Tour at the start of 2010. He felt an immediate improvement and almost won his first event. He then won his next three starts on the Champions Tour before turning up at the Masters in April.
“For us it was a game-changer”, says Michael Waack, head of Global Golf for Ecco. “We sold out of the Street hybrid shoe and couldn’t make more fast enough to keep up with demand. People were calling and asking where they could buy the shoes Freddy was wearing at Augusta.” Aged 50, Couples finished the Masters in sole sixth place and gave some of the credit to the Ecco shoes which he said had eased the discomfort in his back.
The rest as they say is history. “It’s not overstating to describe it as a paradigm shift. Before that event cleatless golf shoes had been a very niche category with an insignificant market share. After that everyone introduced a line of cleatless shoes. But we had got there first and we’re seeing double-digit growth in sales of hybrid cleatless shoes”, Waack confirms.
Getting there first began in 1996 when Karl Toosbuy, the Danish founder of Ecco took up golf and couldn’t find a pair of shoes he liked. By 1999 Ecco was manufacturing its own golf shoes. “Making golf shoes raised our brand profile. We have a reputation for innovation and style. We don’t copy other manufacturers so when we entered the golf market, we were seeking to change the image to something more fashionable.”
Ecco does make cleated shoes as well as hybrids and the latest Biom G2 range uses the Champ Spikes Slim-Lok Fitting System. But a big part of the appeal for hybrid shoes is that they can be worn on or off the course. Waack says they have practical benefits as well. “With cleats you get a rapid build-up of grass and leaves sticking to the sole which you have to clean off at each tee to stop slipping on your drive. The patented E-dts Street outsole which we use on our hybrid shoes has 100 moulded tractions bars with over 800 tractions angles giving excellent grip without a build-up of grass and leaves.”
Unusually the company directly controls all aspects of manufacturing, including its own leather tanneries, in a vertically integrated production chain it terms ‘from hide to high street’. “It gives us the complete quality control assurance which we could not get with third party manufacturing. Of course we could do it cheaper if we outsourced, but we are not aiming at making a cheap product. Our shoes are the best you can buy.” Controlling the whole process has allowed Ecco to use materials such as yak leather in its latest spring-summer 2015 collection.
Direct Injection Production or DIP is the core competence of the Ecco sole technology. Without using glue or stitching a strong bond is achieved providing durability and longevity. “It’s an Ecco technology developed and improved over many years. It enables us to make anatomical shaped, soft, flexible and light shoes. By injecting a resilient, shock absorbent material into a foot shaped mould we bond the sole directly to the upper.”
The Ecco design process begins by addressing requirements for a specific customer segment says Waack. “We want to surprise our customers by creating our own unique designs, so we don’t follow the design lead of competitors. We will put together a design specification and then get marketing feedback. We will also ask for retail sales forecasts. We have very good relationships with our tour pros and they help with testing.” As well as Couples (obviously) other tour stars wearing Ecco shoes include Ernie Els, Graeme McDowell, Thomas Bjørn, Thongchai Jaidee and Marcel Siem.
With regard to routes to market Ecco has 1,100 of its own stores based on its ‘from hide to high street’ policy, plus another 14,000 sales outlets in 85 countries. “We want to work with the best retail accounts and have a real partner relationship with them. We’re not really interested in stockists that just want to take Ecco as another brand alongside a range of other lines. And we work with on-course and off-course retailers.”
Waack joined Ecco in 1999 and has been head of Global Golf since 2007. Summing up he says, “Everyone here is very passionate about what we do and the brand. We won’t compromise; we engineer our shoes to be the best you can wear, not to a price point.”