MBD KOREA’s Evolving Endeavor With MERRELL, an American Outdoor Brand Committed to Supporting Both Nature Lovers and Urbanites

Seventy percent of South Korea is covered with mountains. Seoul, a megacity known for skyscrapers and the hustle and bustle of people and cars, is also surrounded by mountainous landscapes. Low-altitude mountains suitable for easy hikes are scattered across the city, only 30 minutes away from the metropolitan area by subway. According to the Economist, two-thirds of people in South Korea own a pair of hiking shoes and go hiking in the mountains at least once a year. Camping has also become a popular pastime in recent years, especially among younger people.

In South Korea—a nation of nature lovers—MBD KOREA has been developing a retail business with MERRELL, an American brand known for high-quality outdoor footwear, since the 2023 spring and summer season. The company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Marubeni, boasts a network of about 40 stores as well as its own online store, which are dedicated to developing the MERRELL brand in South Korea.

Committed to helping people enjoy their outdoor activities, MERRELL continues to enhance the functionality and comfort of its own products. The brand is rooted in the hiking boots of the 1970s, which were finely tailored for each customer by Randy Merrell, who dedicated his genuine craftmanship to nature enthusiasts. Today, MERRELL is recognized as an international brand, offering a wide range of outdoor footwear, not to mention its iconic hiking shoes, in many parts of the world. In Japan, Marubeni Footwear has had the exclusive rights to import and distribute MERRELL products since 1998. With the help of knowledge gained through years of experience by the Marubeni Group, MBD KOREA aims to increase recognition of the value that MERRELL has to offer, ultimately transforming the brand into a market leader in South Korea.

In the South Korean outdoor market, apparel is in high demand, particularly because wearing outdoor clothing as street clothes has become commonplace among people of all ages. This is especially true in winter, during which the average temperature of Seoul drops well below freezing, so clothes made by outdoor brands using high-performance, high-functional fabrics are must-haves. To survive the freezing days, people need a long puffer down jacket and a mid-layer, which can retain warmth.

MERRELL Apparel Locally Designed in South Korea Inherits the Brand’s DNA—High Functionality and Comfort

“The outdoor market in South Korea is very big. While it is expected to grow even further, a great number of companies already exist in this market, including newcomers,” says Masafumi Inoue, CEO of MBD KOREA, “and differentiating ourselves effectively from other brands is the key to success.” According to the Korea Federation of Textile Industries, the nation’s outdoor apparel market is valued at about 6 trillion won, which is equivalent to 4.5 billion US dollars. South Korea has a population of 51.7 million, less than half of Japan’s, yet its outdoor apparel market is equal to or even larger than that of Japan. It is a competitive arena full of rivals—both domestic and international outdoor brands.

As MERRELL’s shoes are made for the global market, MBD KOREA imports shoes from the United States. On the other hand, apparel products and accessories, such as bags and caps, are being produced locally under a licensing agreement with Wolverine World Wide, Inc., the owner of the brand; they are designed to fit the needs, preferences, and body types of people in South Korea.

Cho Su-Jin, who leads the design team, is committed to replicating high functionality and comfort in apparel—the DNA that makes MERRELL’s footwear stand out. Everything that is designed by the team is in sync with the features of MERELL’s three shoe categories. For “Hike,” high functionality intended to support the wearer’s outdoor activity is a top priority. For “Trail Running,” providing comfort for runners is a must.

For “After Sport,” a strong emphasis is given to conveying a relaxed feeling, but sophisticated designs that can also blend in with an urban lifestyle are equally important. “We also incorporate feedback from our customers into our designs,” Cho says. Before they start planning for a new season, she and her team visit sales staff at their stores to gather their input and hear the voices of customers.

“It is important that we create signature items, such as distinctively designed pants that match our shoes, without being overly in line with seasonal trends. By adhering to this policy, we will continue to protect MERRELL’s brand identity,” says Yasuhisa Etsu, managing director, who oversees marketing and branding at MBD KOREA. Prior to joining the Marubeni Group in 2022, Etsu had worked for a major Japanese apparel company, where he gained expertise in brand management by handling many different brands, as well as experience with living and doing business in South Korea.

Bringing Brand Development Business from Japan to South Korea, then to the World

MERRELL debuted in South Korea about 15 years ago, with a local company previously functioning as its exclusive distributor, but when the opportunity came up to become the brand’s new distributor in the country, Marubeni took it, also deciding to take up responsibilities both in sales and product designs. Inoue, Etsu, and Heo Byungho, currently the senior general manager of the administration division at MBD KOREA, were transferred to Seoul from Japan. They rented out a small section of a co-working office and proceeded at top speed toward the inception of the company.

Everything had to be done within just a few months. The store design of about 30 different locations needed to be refreshed, all at the same time. This mission, which seemed almost impossible, was carried out by a single person: Bang Su-Ji, MBD KOREA’s visual merchandizer. Her tasks included measuring the retail capacity of each store, making the design for each store, drawing up the blueprints, monitoring the construction, coordinating with each store, and following up with them after the changes were made. “All of my colleagues, like the product-design team and those in sales, were working extremely hard. So, I made every effort to make it work, because I felt, ‘If fail, everything will be ruined,’” she recalls. Bang is now developing a new store design, which will be gradually implemented from 2024. The current design, in which wooden materials are dominant, is intended to emphasize a touch of nature. Aiming to create stores with no clear boundary between the city and nature, Bang is planning to incorporate more urban elements into the new design.

MERRELL’s current presence in the South Korean outdoor market is not particularly substantial. “I am tasked with increasing recognition of our brand,” Heo says. His responsibilities as the senior general manager include finance, accounting, human resources, and administration. He also oversees shipping and customer service. After graduating from a university in South Korea, Heo joined Marubeni in 2014, with the hope of “cultivating big dreams at a Japanese trading company.” Handling a variety of tasks which he had never imagined himself doing, Heo feels a great sense of accomplishment in the work he does. Since his early days at Marubeni, when Heo was wrestling with cultural differences and language barriers, he has embraced what has become his maxim: If you can make it through today, tomorrow will definitely be a better day.

Marubeni plans to develop a variety of consumer businesses for international markets, primarily in Asian countries, using different types of brands. “Our current top priority is to make MERRELL a success in South Korea, but we also aim to do business with some other brands, without limiting ourselves to the outdoor market,” Inoue says. “We are driven by expectations that the experiences and learning we are getting here will boost Marubeni’s efforts to expand its brand development business in the world.”

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in October 2023.