Great Product, Lousy Brand

May 22, 2008



Just because you have a great idea and make a great product (or deliver a great service) doesn’t mean you will build a powerful brand and enjoy great success. This sad truth sometimes becomes personal when a product I love makes egregious branding errors. In fact, it really makes my blood boil.


I am an avid walker. I love walking in New York City going up the avenues and through the park. I love walking in Paris to the Eiffel Tower and through the Tullieries. I love hiking in the mountains of Austria and around the volcanoes in Maui.


I am also into fitness and new exercise trends and gadgets. I have all sorts of wobble boards, weighted balls, body bars, ankle weights, abdominal wheels and yoga mats. I also have an elliptical machine, Rollerblades,  an inversion table and now MBT shoes.


I love my MBT shoes, but their branding stinks.


The point of a brand name is to get into the mind of the consumer. The better your name, the easier it is to get into the mind. Think BlackBerry.


The point of a category name is to define the niche your brand occupies in the mind. Ideally you want to be first in a new category. This will give you credibility, authenticity and instant leadership. Think Red Bull and energy drink. If you aren’t first, then you want to be the opposite of the competition. Think Monster, the 16-oz energy drink and the No.2 brand.


The point of a tagline (or positioning statement) is to give consumers a verbal message to share with one another. The test of a good tagline goes like this: If somebody asks you why you bought the brand will the tagline explain it? Does it use words consumers would use? Does it even make any sense?


Why did you buy Barilla pasta? Because it is “Italy’s #1 pasta.”


Why did you buy a Toyota? Because they are “moving forward?”


While I can see the Barilla conversation happening. I could never see the Toyota one happening. Don’t Toyotas go in reverse anymore?


MBT fails on all three counts.



The name: MBT.


Launching a brand with meaningless initials is the kiss of death. While companies like IBM and GE might be known by their initials, they actually stand for International Business Machines and General Electric. They can get away with the shorthand because they are leaders and have been around forever, IBM has been around for 84 years and GE 116 years. When you are that old and that established, you can use initials. Note: neither company ever changed their name to the initials.


Nobody knows what MBT stands for. When nobody knows your name, you can’t use initials. It just makes a bad name worse. Initials are much more difficult to remember than a name and initials communicate nothing about your brand.


What MBT stands for is Masai Barefoot Technology. Of course the full name is no good either. I doubt any tribe in Kenya would be running around in $250 shoes. And the shoes are so big and so klutzy-looking that calling them “barefoot technology” is non-sensical even if it is true. The research might say they re-create the positive effects of walking barefoot, but they don’t give that impression at first glance. And perception is everything.


Furthermore, they don’t even own! The brand’s website is If you have a bad name, at least you should own the bad name website.


What MBT needs is a name like Crocs. Simple, different, memorable and a name alludes to the product. If Crocs were called PSTs (Plastic Shoe Technology), they would never have become the billion-dollar brand they are today.



The category: What is the category? Nobody knows.


MBT calls itself “physiological footwear.” Huh? What is that? Nobody is going to use that as a category name. What kind of physiological footwear do you wear? I don’t think so.

A category name should contain simple words and be easy to understand. And don’t trademark it. If you want to get big, you need your category to get big. And for your category to get big, you need competition.  As long as you are the leading brand, having a flock of followers behind you is a good thing.


What are some good category names: energy drink, sports drink, energy bar, expensive coffee, wireless email, safe car, packaged salad, performance underwear, natural cosmetics, organic groceries. Of course, the brands that dominates these categories are the brands that introduced the category (Red Bull, Gatorade, PowerBar, Starbucks, BlackBerry, Volvo, Fresh Express, Under Armour, The Body Shop and Whole Foods.)


In this emerging shoe category there are several brands and several words floating around to describe them. There is no consistency and no one idea to describe the category that makes sense to consumers. This is going to be devastating to MBT. Some call them “rolly shoes.” I call them “rockers.” Others call them wobbly or balance shoes. The names are all over the place.


Another company makes a flip-flop version called FitFlop which it says has “patent-pending micro-wobbleboard technology.” Walking with wobble boards on my feet doesn’t seem like a safe idea. Nor a good branding idea.


All this chaos undermines the potential of the category because nobody understands it or knows what to call it. While MBT has avid fans like me, they don’t have a clear message for the general public or the media to spread the word.


In addition to the confusion over the category name, there is confusion over the benefit of the shoes. MBT’s benefits range from the ridiculous “cellulite removal” to the relatively tame “improved posture.”


A brand should have one clear benefit. The benefit like the category name should be simple, specific, understandable and believable. For MBT is could be: “Makes every walk a workout.” Or “Get 30% more workout in every step.” The more crazy the benefit the less believable it is.


For the benefit was “30% off all books.” For iPod the benefit was “1,000 songs.” For Papa John’s Pizza the benefit is “better ingredients, better pizza.”



The tagline: First problem, MBT has two. Second problem, neither is any good.


Brands should have one tagline and use it everywhere: websites, advertising, letterheads, business cards etc. Having a brand tagline “physiological footwear” and an advertising tagline “the anti-shoe” makes no sense. Two taglines are not better than one.


Obviously the agency for MBT took one look at the current brand tagline and said we can’t use that!


Mbt ad001


So they came up with “The anti-shoe.” The anti-shoe? MBTs are the biggest, ugliest shoes ever made! How can they ever be known as the anti-shoe? Answer: they can’t.


But they can be known as the ultimate workout shoe. Every step, every day is a workout.


The thing I like most about MBT shoes is that they are so different looking. Every single time I wear them people notice these shoes and stop me to comment on MBTs. They are like the lime in the top of the Corona bottle. You can’t miss the difference.


Geox is a fantastic shoe brand known as “breathable shoes,” but the difference is unnoticeable. Unless you look at the bottom of somebody’s feet, there is no way to see the holes that allow the shoes to breathe.


When people see MBTs, they can’t help but to ask: What are they? What do they do? Do they work? Where did I get them? When this happens it pains me because the brand is missing a big opportunity. My answers to these questions are weak because the brand is weak. The terrible name, a shaky position and unnamed category leave me with a difficult story to tell about them. Without word of mouth no brand can thrive.


If you are single, you might get a pair of MBT shoes. For some reason guys at the gym see these shoes as the perfect excuse to come and talk to me. One guy said “At first I thought you had the funny shoes because one leg was shorter than the other.” Guess he thought that was a funny line.


MBT has got to be careful because FitFlop is moving in. They have a memorable and descriptive name along with a cleaver tagline "It's the flip-flop with the gym built in."


MBT shoes are a great product but a lousy brand. Such a shame.