Skip to main content
Management in Practice

Can a Social Message Sell Sneakers?

The 100-year-old sneaker company Keds has adopted women’s empowerment as its theme as it pursues a more nimble mobile-first marketing strategy. Emily Culp, the company’s chief marketing officer, talked with Yale Insights about how it connects with consumers.

It’s clear that the old way of marketing—reaching mass audiences through television and print ads—is reaching the end of its useful life. But it’s not as clear what comes next. Is it eerily personalized marketing, ads that seem to arrive just when you are most susceptible to them? Or, in the age of social media, is it something more akin to an ongoing conversation between consumers and brands?

In his 2012 book Uprising, marketer Scott Goodson argued that brands could connect with customers and have a positive impact by finding a shared passion for social change, what he called “movement marketing.” He wrote, “[I]nstead of being focused on selling, the way to connect with movements is to be dedicated to sharing; instead of controlling the message, marketers must learn to relinquish control and let the movement do what it will with that message; perhaps most radical of all, companies and brands must learn to stop talking about themselves and to join in a conversation that is about anything and everything but their product.”

The shoe brand Keds, founded in 1916, was one of the first companies to offer rubber-soled athletic shoes—sneakers—to women; it became a favorite of women athletes and an icon of casual style. In 2015, as the company approached its 100th anniversary, it looked back across its history and found a common thread: women’s empowerment. The company adopted “Ladies first since 1916” as its tagline, enlisting singer Taylor Swift as a brand ambassador.

In a conversation with Yale Insights, chief marketing officer Emily Culp talked about what works and what doesn’t when using a social issue to connect with consumers, and how the company stays one step ahead of the social media trends.

Q: What are the aspects of the Keds brand that you consider to be its lasting heritage?

I think that the lasting heritage around Keds is that it’s really focused on female empowerment. When the company was founded in 1916, the only choice women had in footwear was high boots with laces. Keds gave them alternatives. With Keds, they could play sports or take part in leisure activities. Keds didn’t have a tagline about female empowerment. Instead, the undercurrent in the imagery of women diving to reach a tennis ball, or running through a field, in its own way was subtly marketing that inherent feature and benefit, if you will, of the product, and what it empowered women to do. And you can trace that heritage throughout all these amazing iconic women—Yoko Ono, who got married in them, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn. And today we’ve got the Keds Collective, amazing women from Taylor Swift to Ciara to Allison Williams.

Q: Who is your consumer?

First and foremost, I think of her as a global citizen. She lives in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.; she is global. I don’t think about her in terms of age or a demographic. It’s more a psychographic for me. She’s somebody who has a little bit of moxy, who appreciates fashion, but also the functional benefits. And frankly loves heritage brands. There is something powerful, I think, about about the fact that when you talk to any woman, whether she is 7 or 90, they all know Keds. Our brand awareness is very powerful. I think what’s exciting is it resonates.

Q: How does a brand decide whether to invoke social issues in its marketing?

It’s all about authenticity. It’s also all about having a long-term relationship. It’s not the one-and-done approach. If a cause is trending, for a brand to hop on that bandwagon… Consumers are so smart and savvy. They can see that the brand is trying to capitalize on something.

Going back to Keds, what’s really important to me is that authentically, we’ve been about female empowerment. That was the birthright of our brand. We’ve been doing it for a century. It just happens to be what’s resonating with consumers right now. But we’ve been doing this for 100 years. Our current campaign and positioning is “Ladies first since 1916.” We’re really owning that heritage, and what’s really exciting for me is the consumer really does believe in female empowerment. It’s a point of differentiation. Our heritage perfectly coincides with what’s culturally relevant.

Q: What do you mean when you say you have a “maniacal focus on listening to consumers”? How does that work in practice?

I wouldn’t have a job without consumers. At the end of the day, my job is to make sure the product, the service, features, and benefits are all coming across. And, frankly, loved by the consumer. How I actually do it has evolved as the tools in the world in the past 20 years have evolved, too. But some of it hasn’t.

Case in point, I’m very retro. I still go into malls and stores. And I listen to consumers talking: what shoes they’re looking at, for what occasion. You glean a lot not having an official focus group. I love doing this stealth shopper marketing. I also love focus groups. Qualitative research I think is really, really important. And then the other form of research I love is social media, which is basically a learning laboratory. I can turn it on at anytime, anywhere in the world, wherever I’m traveling, and read the comments on any social platform and learn a lot about products, or positioning, absolutely anything. And the last one is customer service. When consumers take the time to call an 800 number or write an email, there’s some very interesting insights there, too, that are hugely important.

Q: How does your approach change depending upon the social media platform? How do you decide which ones will work for you or will even stick around?

Our consumers are on every single social platform all around the world. But you don’t want to take one message and try to shove it into all the platforms in a uniform way. That doesn’t work for anyone. The challenge is creating one message, but then tailoring it for each platform, so it resonates and makes sense. If we’re on Instagram, we might show a beautiful product shot, while on Twitter we’re talking about a specific tangible benefit. And on Tumblr, we’re posting a whole behind-the-scenes look at how we made the product; I think of it as almost like chapters in a book.

Q: How do you decide when to go onto a platform?

I’d like to say I had a crystal ball for deciding which platforms will work for us. If I did, I’d be in Bali right now. I don’t have one of those, but what I do have is 20 years of experience growing up in digital. To me, it’s all about embracing smart risk. Some of it is gut, and some of it is literally being tapped into consumers. Did I take a risk on Snapchat? Yes, but in the end it worked. Was I 100% sure? Absolutely not. I’d be not truthful if I said otherwise.

So a lot of it is just a mixture of gut, having the right network, and also really starting to look at a lot of data. There are so many amazing companies out there that can track users migrating from one platform to the other. Eventually, it reaches a tipping point for us and we jump. Social media actually makes this easier for us to do. When you think about it, the investment in time is very important. But usually it’s just time. It’s not as though there’s a huge capital expenditure that is a major issue for a company.

Q: How did you decide to make Keds’ marketing strategy mobile first?

Making the decision to be mobile first sounds pretty easy in many ways. But it’s actually brutally hard to pivot a whole company that way. How did I make the decision? I really believe in qual and quant. It’s an art and a science. From the quantitative side, we look at user data. We have websites around the world, and they’re accessed disproportionately on a mobile device. That’s a pretty solid indicator that your consumer is already where you need to be. To further verify it we go to other external resources to see the trends in usage behavior. We’re able to get a pretty robust picture that this is the right big bet to go after.

In terms of actually pivoting a company, where it’s really interesting is around content creation. I spent the first 10 years of my career on the advertising side, where traditionally when it comes to a campaign, everybody thinks first in terms of print or TV. Only then do you worry about digital and other different channels or elements. When you’re mobile first, you’re shooting first and foremost for mobile. Everybody understands that the objective is to get the most amazing digital content—whether it’s GIFs or video. From there, you fan out into print and other things.

Within Keds, the leadership team has been very, very supportive, because we’ve been able to go, in the past year, from delivering 100 assets every season to our global marketing partners to 1,000. So it’s a tenfold increase. And we’ve seen unbelievable year-over-year sales growth and other things as a result. We have some very positive momentum.