Backpack alternative helps posture, comfort, sheds light on ergonomics issue. 

Physical therapist Marilyn Miller von Foerster had what many would think is an inventor’s dream—until she encountered a common but significant obstacle.

She created the BackTpack®, an ergonomically designed backpack substitute that loads the body properly through its central axis for proper posture and better comfort. But she didn’t have the resources needed to educate the market and create instant success.

The innovation story

Von Foerster has been a physical therapist since 1969, with a focus on back health and rehabilitation. In the 1980s, she was in Nepal and saw people carrying huge loads compared to their body weight, yet their posture was flawless.

She immediately noticed that the Nepalese used axial loading either by a traditional tumpline that is a strap for transferring the weight of the backpack’s contents to the head and straight spine, or they used a bilateral system that loads on both sides. “The Nepali people moved with such grace and elegant posture,” she said.

Von Foerster used their tumpline system for several weeks and experienced the postural response and pain relief. “I later met with a Nepali orthopaedic surgeon who said that there are very few spinal problems in Nepal compared with the West, which he attributed to their axially loading carrying systems.”

Fast forward to 2001–2004, when her son, Nicholas, was in middle school. She saw that all students walked hunched over to keep from falling backwards with their heavy backpacks, resulting in bad posture habits and pain. Von Foerster realized that this is a global problem with schoolchildren, wrote professional articles addressing the problem, then went to work on creating her own backpack that utilized the principles of axial loading. She introduced the original BackTpack in 2004; the company now sells four models, including the BackTpack Mini for young children.

Von Foerster’s creation is based on the principle that when people carry weight they need to have good posture, and that the system they use every day trains their habits. A traditional backpack forces people to lean forward to keep their center of gravity over their feet. A balanced left-right approach allows wearers to keep their center of gravity over their feet in good posture. Having the load aligned with the vertical axis trains the muscles to respond vertically. Additionally, having the bags at the sides eliminates the frequent bending and twisting to remove the pack for access to contents or to sit down.

Market need

Students’ pain and posture distortion from using backpacks has reached the point that California, Delaware and Tennessee have enacted legislation to limit the weight of books a student needs to carry while recommending the use of an ergonomic system. Since 2004, von Foerster has been educating policymakers about a true solution: a carrying system that does not distort posture.

So despite what many people have assumed, the problem is not the weight carried by backpacks. The problem that has students bent over is the weight being on their backs, worsened by increased loads. Loading is essential for healthy bone and strength development, but only in good posture.

Von Foerster is convinced her product is a solution with health benefits for growing children and people of all ages. The BackTpack, with a suggested retail price of $50 to $120, should appeal to people concerned about posture issues and heavy backpacks.

Marketing challenges

But people won’t buy if they don’t know her product exists. And educating the market has been a daunting task on a limited budget.

Von Foerster, who lives in Oregon, began her marketing efforts by starting a website (backTpack.com); exhibiting at physical therapy conventions and conferences; selling her product at the University of Oregon college bookstore, and other means. At an early convention, the director of the physical therapy program at Duke University learned of BackTpack and ordered them with the Duke logo for all incoming physical therapy students. This helped place the product into the Duke bookstore.

“I was excited to have this professional endorsement and support from Duke, and I thought sales were really going to take off,” von Foerster said.

But follow-up sales didn’t happen the way she expected. She visited the Oregon bookstore, asked the clerk about BackTpack, and the clerk had never heard of it. Von Foerster found the product buried on a shelf, explained exactly how it worked and gave a BackTpack to the enthusiastic clerk.

Thirty days later, she revisited the store—and it was the same story with a new clerk. The product just didn’t have the sales support from display or on the package to sell itself.

Von Foerster pulled the product from the stores. She has since improved the point-of-sale materials and put the product into the Relax the Back retail chain and several other stores, but store sales have been disappointing.

She has continued to promote the product at physical therapist trade shows and conferences. Von Foerster has also found that she can make sales through several dealers specializing in products for blind or visually impaired people, who sell at targeted conventions and conferences. She has had some success getting mention of her product into websites such as the Posture Restoration Institute website, which has helped promote sales.

The BackTpack has increased sales revenue 20 percent per year since 2005, with most sales still coming from the website. But von Foerster feels the product should do better, because it offers a huge advantage over traditional backpacks.

New approach helps

Von Foerster has recently redirected her marketing efforts, explaining: “I found that professional trade shows  were not cost-effective and, at least at conferences for physical therapists, the attendees are more interested in presentations than purchasing products at booths.

“Now, I go to the physical therapy conferences as an attendee, earn CEUs (Continuing Education Credits), and respond to inquiries about the BackTpack I am wearing. I wear my bag to work, when traveling, and to all conferences, because it is the healthy and convenient thing to do.”

The word of mouth has been a major benefit. One key contributor in that respect has been the Ball State University Department of Theatre and Dance, whose students have been using BackTpack for five years. Wearing the BackTpack has been required for the past several years.

Ball State’s biomechanics lab did research with BackTpack vs. traditional backpacks, results of which are published in the journal Gait & Posture. This research demonstrated that BackTpack preserves natural posture compared to the postural distortion from backpack use with progressive loads. This evidence-based research is the foundation of current marketing efforts targeting the medical and scientific communities. Those efforts consist of sending information to key websites, journals and market influencers with the aim of getting the BackTpack mentioned in articles and speeches.

Other options

As someone with decades of marketing experience, I suggested that von Foerster consider running a press release campaign and adding independent sales representatives. Such a campaign in mid-July would target writers charged with coming up with something fresh and new for their August back-to-school articles. A site that is good for learning more on developing a press release program is fitsmallbusiness.com/press-release-examples/. Independent sales reps carry multiple lines that they present to their target customers, which are typically concentrated in one industry. I did a check on two companies selling products to physical therapists, Pro-Med Products Express and ScripHessco, and found that on their websites, both published a list of their sales reps.

Details: backTpack.com; info@backTpack.com