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Guess Which Sneaker Maker Turned More Heads in 2015? (Hint: It's Not Nike Inc.)

By Rich Duprey - Jan 22, 2016 at 9:27AM

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The Swoosh still remains as popular as ever, but there's another brand generating more consumer buzz.

The enduring popularity of brands like these Jordans means Nike may never lose its top spot in the industry. 

Although Nike (NKE -0.53%) has transformed itself over the years from simply being a sneaker company into one that's a full lifestyle brand, it's never abandoned its core footwear market. The advent of so-called "athleisure" clothes, or attire that can be worn to a workout before heading off to kick back and relax in, has helped fuel Nike's growth in recent periods.

Last year it specifically began targeting women to attract them to the brand, expanding its women's apparel offerings, particularly in sports bras and tights, as it went after market leader lululemon athletica. Nike estimated the women's line could add as much as $2 billion in additional sales by 2017, growing segment revenues to $7 billion.

But footwear is still its most important business, accounting for 60%, or $9.7 billion, in first-half fiscal 2016 revenues. It's also the segment that's enjoyed the greatest growth with sales rising 17% over the first six months of the year.

Kicking it to the competition
The popularity of Nike's footwear is likely why it topped YouGov's 2015 BrandIndex list of top footwear manufacturers in the U.S., the fifth year in a row it's been chosen as the best, putting it ahead of Adidas, Reebok, and Under Armour, which has made it's own big push into shoes, reporting double-digit sales gains in footwear sales the week after Christmas after seeing them surge 61% in the third quarter.

Yet according to YouGov, Nike remains the definitive one to beat, particularly among women, where its advertising efforts generated increasingly positive impressions across all of 2015.

However, as strong as Nike's been, its popularity has given up some ground. The brand intelligence analysts at YouGov say that between 2014 and 2015, Nike's "buzz" has actually declined, falling from a score of 18.7 to 15.9, a 15% drop. Five other footwear companies are on the rise, though most are so far behind that they present little threat to overtaking Nike as the top brand.

What's the buzz about?
YouGov takes a daily pulse of consumer perceptions about a brand with its BrandIndex gauging a company's "buzz," or whether consumers have heard about a brand, whether from advertising or news, and whether the perception formed is positive or negative, generating ratings from 100 to -100. Its Buzz Improvers list shows, on the other hand, the brands with the highest increase in positive perceptions. It says the rankings are representative of the general population.

Deckers Outdoor, for example, came in at No. 5 on the BrandIndex 2015 list of Top Buzz Improvers with its Ugg brand achieving a 2.7 rating, up from 2.3 a year ago, while Columbia Sportswear had a 4.2 score, an improvement from the 3.7 it got in 2014.

But one footwear specialist not only outranked the others in improving the perception consumers had about the brand, but it is within striking distance of Nike and could conceivably surpass the Swoosh if it maintains its current trajectory.

What compnay is it? Skechers (SKX -0.13%).

Data source: YouGov BrandIndex.

Not-so-sketchy details
The footwear company was having a stellar year financially last year, recording rising sales and profits with each passing quarter and its stock hit an all-time high of $54 a share. Although Skechers performance took a hit late in the year after its third quarter report missed both top and bottom line estimates (it still notched 27% growth, but Wall Street was expecting even more) and quickly lost a third of its value. Even so, the footwear company still closed out 2015 with a 63% gain for the year.

Although it's grown to become the second largest footwear company behind Nike, Skechers still trails far behind. But increasingly positive consumer perceptions about the brand may see it capture greater mindshare if not market share.

No doubt part of consumers looking more favorably on Skechers has to do with its Shape-Ups footwear, which also saw increased buzz last year placing it third overall with a 0.3 rating, minuscule to be sure, but a vast improvement over the negative impressions that were held the year before. Shape-Ups may finally have moved beyond the whole toning shoe fiasco a few years back.

But Skechers has grown to be the second largest footwear company behind Nike. Make no mistake, Nike still owns the market with a two-thirds share and Skechers, even though it's in second place, has just a 5% share. Yet if the YouGov rankings are any indication, consumers are responding to its messaging, which should bode well for future quarterly earnings.

Nike may be the biggest game in town, and investors would be foolish to underestimate its prowess and ability to regain its balance, but Skechers could eventually run over its rival in mindshare if not market share.

Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends lululemon athletica, Nike, Skechers, and Under Armour. The Motley Fool recommends Deckers Outdoor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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