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My Decision to Work with Merrell

Posted by on Dec 11, 2010 | 8 Comments

In the coming weeks, I will be posting a comprehensive review of Merrell’s new Trail Glove minimalist shoe. This will be a difficult review because of the potential conflict of interest involved. I take great pride in providing honest, accurate reviews of the various shoes I review, both good and bad. I have been very careful to avoid situations that would prevent me from giving impartial reviews.

The problem with my Merrell review- Merrell hired me to do some educational consultant work.

Here’s the story:

In October of 2010, I received an email from a Merrell representative asking if I would be interested in talking about their new line of minimalist shoes. I heard rumors of these shoes a few months earlier. Even though they are a well-known brand among outdoor enthusiasts, I had never heard of them. I was familiar with their parent company- Wolverine Worldwide. It is based in Rockford, Michigan; a mere ten miles from my home.

Since I am always interested in testing the newest footwear that may help in running ultramarathons, I replied. The representative put me in contact with Meg Hammond, Merrell’s marketing manager. I was surprised she asked to meet. Most shoe manufacturers simply communicate via email.

As luck would have it, I had a barefoot running clinic planned that week at Crossfit Grand Rapids. Meg agreed to meet me there.

When the night arrived, I brought all my gear which essentially consists of about twenty pairs of minimalist shoes from a variety of manufacturers. Meg arrived on time and we chatted about Merrell in general and the new line of shoes in particular. We talked about the importance of running form and the qualities of a good shoe. She brought a pair of the Trail Gloves for me to try, so I slipped them on. I’ll wait to give you my impressions in the review.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed with the shoes (they are my shoe of choice to run the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in June).  In subsequent conversations with Meg, she revealed Merrell’s plans for the release of the line of shoes. They were planning a major education campaign to teach people about running form from the perspective of a barefoot runner. The goal was simple- it was an attempt get people outside to embark on adventures while also providing a wealth of information to prevent them from injury.

To date, every other manufacturer of minimalist shoes has done a very poor job of educating people about proper running gait when moving from traditional running shoes to minimalist shoes or barefoot. Merrell was making an attempt to fill this education void. My ultimate goal in the promotion of barefoot running has always been education. I want to give people the resources and knowledge necessary to avoid many of the pitfalls of making a transition from traditional running shoes to minimalist shoes or barefoot.

The problem- all these resources require runners to seek out the information. I simply don’t have the resources to advertise or otherwise cast a wider net. Since Merrell was interested in producing materials to be distributed at the customer level, this was a perfect opportunity for me to help make a significant, lasting impact on a population that may or may not have found my other resources. As a teacher, this is incredibly exciting.

Ultimately they wanted me to be a consultant, along with several other prominent barefoot runners. Collectively, our experiences would help them craft a well-planned series of innovative tools that would teach good running form. Interestingly, the tools they were planning were the EXACT same tools I had planned to develop in the future. I’m not a huge “fate” person, but this did send a slight shiver down my spine.

Since education is the primary goal I accomplish with my book, clinics, my site, my involvement with the Barefoot Runners Society, other forums, and articles such as the article in Ultrarunning Magazine, I took Merrell’s goals to heart. They were doing exactly what many of us barefoot runners have been waiting for- a major manufacturer getting involved in actively teaching about good form. This was an opportunity to help reach an entirely new population of outdoor enthusiasts, including many runners.

I also liked the focus on all sports and activities. As a runner, I tend to focus only on running. I sometimes forget that the minimalist shoe movement has expanded well beyond the running world. The sincerity of Merrell’s commitment to education swayed me. Of course, it helped that their shoe was… well, I’ll wait for the review. :-)

Since we started a professional relationship, I’ve been helping with the development of these awesome tools that will help new runners and outdoor enthusiasts learn good form. Merrell took input from an impressive array of sources and distilled their message down to some very simple yet effective teaching points.

Our agreed-upon message is slightly different than the typical methods and techniques I teach, but the underlying concepts are the same. I don’t want to give details as of yet, but Merrell will be releasing these tools around the beginning of February.

Anyway, back to my impartiality. A major sticking point for me was my autonomy as a blogger. I review shoes for all the major manufacturers. Obviously my work with Merrell would be an issue. I had a long talk with Merrell’s marketing team. It was important that they allow me to continue my work as a reviewer, which included the understanding that I may give their shoes a horrible review.

At the time, I had enough experience in the Trail Gloves to know I liked them. Still, I did have a few complaints I will document in my review. I needed Merrell to understand I was going to be brutally honest. Furthermore, I would also be comparing their shoes to their competition. It was also important that they accept the fact that I may like the competition more and will not hesitate to say so publicly.

This was a tough stand for me to take as I was really excited about their education program. Again, their plans were the very thing we (the barefoot running community) has been waiting for from a major manufacturer… a comprehensive plan to educate. As a professional teacher, I was salivating. Yet, my audience came first. The cost of compromising my autonomy couldn’t justify the benefit of working to educate.

Luckily, Merrell not only agreed with my points, but also encouraged me to be honest about their shoes. At that moment, I really understood that this company was a little different. They were willing to weather a potential negative review in order to receive feedback to make a better product. At first I thought they were just supremely confident in their product. I have since learned it’s just Merrell’s commitment to quality. Apparently their products produce some of the most loyal customers in the entire industry. I now know why. I’ve had many conversations with shoe manufacturers over the years. None have been so open to potential negative feedback.

Anyway, I will be posting a full review in the near future. I’ve run several hundred miles in the Trail Gloves. The obvious issue with the review will be my perceived impartiality. It’s standard practice for shoe companies to provide products to reviewers which I usually note with a simple sentence at the end of the review. This situation is a little different because I have actually teamed up with the company to produce educational tools and materials.

While I can assure you my reviews of the Merrell line will be completely impartial, it is up to each of my readers to reach your own conclusions. My best recommendation would be to seek out other reviews. Better yet, find a store and try the shoes for yourself. As always, my opinions are just one data point.

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8 Comments

  1. thinnmann
    December 14, 2010

    Glad you are working with Merrell. Let me feed you some info so it gets to the right people. On the education side, it starts right in the box with an informational insert about how to begin adding the shoes to your routine. Merrell’s marketing company sent me a pair a few weeks ago. I put some pictures and words online about them on Facebook and my DailyMile. But I have been told not to post reviews about them until February. I pointed out to them that that was not smart. They are an awesome shoe, both off road and on road. I have done rocky technical trail runs with them, cross-country grassy terrain, and I just ran a 10 mile road race in them on Sunday. They should market these as cross country racing flats for a broad base of sales. I sent them some of my comments – like to have an XC version and another version for rockier trails with a little more texture for grip under the metatarsal area rather than under the toes. The greatest things about the shoe: the heel is NOT ELEVATED! and the toe box is wide enough to allow the toes to naturally spread while the lacing system hugs the rest of the foot and makes the shoe function as one. Plus, they are best worn sockless! I am worried that they might cost significantly more than my previously favorite Saucony Kilkenny XC flats….
    http://www.dailymile.com/people/thinnman/entries/4211074

  2. Jen
    December 14, 2010

    I respect your coming out and saying that it will be a challenge. Just the act of expressing your feelings makes people trust you. I am looking forward to your review as well. And I’m glad that they were willing to listen to you and will be helping to educate others. It’s been so good for me.

  3. Ewa
    December 13, 2010

    There are times when we can’t always run barefoot, because of weather or terrain. I think it is good there will be more minimalist shoes choices on the market. It is good that those companies are seeking barefoot runners input. In my shoe days. Making going barefoot into a dogma will not serve anyone well. Glad you got the opportunity to consult Merrell on what it is bf runners are looking for.
    I for one am waiting for your review. I am hoping to hike (not run) John Muir Trail (220mi) and I know I won’t be able to do it barefoot so I will be looking for some nice minimalist shoes I can try in a store instead of ordering them blindly over the net.

  4. Ben S
    December 13, 2010

    I’m looking forward to the educational materials when they come out. People ask questions and want details and I’m not sure what to tell them. I suggest your book, however, some just want to be told the quick points. Others want details about running form. For me it was helpful to sift through the posts and comments (including some by barefoot experts) on Steve Magness’s Science of Running blog. Not everyone enjoys that kind of technical reading though and it can be hard to follow at times.

  5. Chris
    December 12, 2010

    Great news Jason. You should be an awesome partner for educational materials. I’m a bit worried about you being unconsciously co-opted in the shoe review arena with Merrell. I am rather skeptical that anyone getting free products can do unbiased reviews…and when you have more involvement with a company, it makes it even harder to see the product with independent eyes (or feet). You are a good person and know your audience…so I hope you’ll “stay true to the cause” and remember your audience. Notify people in your reviews how you are connected with the company and/or product and that should help. One thing that “free product reviews” can never do adequately is to critique the customer buying experience–cost, shipping, customer service, coupon codes, inadequate supply, etc. Best of luck with all of your endeavors. Hope you can provide guidance to Merrell so they develop excellent minimalist shoes–and solid educational materials too!

    -Chris

  6. Barefoot Josh
    December 11, 2010

    They contacted me too (not to consult, just to try the shoes and review them) and I should be getting a pair soon. I’m very encouraged that they asked for your direct input.

    I understand your conflict, but don’t think you should sweat it too much though. Sure, maybe your review should have a little asterisk with it, but anyone who would read your opinions on the footwear in the first place will know you’re the type of guy who would work with a company because you like their shoes, not like their shoes because you work for their company.

    As you know, I LOVE my $5 aqua socks from Walmart. If the Merrill shoe can impress my cheapskate self, that says something. My review will come out in February (as they requested). So if my experience is positive, feel free to say “even that yahoo Josh guy in Cackalacky likes them” in the event anyone questions your integrity.

  7. shel
    December 11, 2010

    i knew something fishy was going on… great news! a barefoot runner directly working with a company committed to really doing this thing right is HUGE. so far, almost everything else is just a close approximation of ideal. keep striving for the ideal and fighting for those of us who want to use shoes as a tool, but not a hindrance.

  8. Chris
    December 11, 2010

    Congrats on the amazing opportunity and thanks for the transparency Jason. It’s great to see all your hard work coming to fruition. Keep up the good work!