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Why Converse Gives Chuck Taylor Fans Control Of The Brand

Brand vice president-general manager Geoff Cottrill talks about why free studio time for musicians is great advertising, and more.

As iconic American brands go, the Chuck Taylor may be the least advertised. Don’t get me wrong, the Nike subsidiary spends plenty of money on marketing, but think about the most popular brands out there: Air Jordans, iPhones, Budweiser–along with an unforgettable logo and product, they boast ads that have had a cultural impact. Whether it’s “Is it the shoes?,” “Hello?,” or “Waassuuuup?,” the advertising is part of the aura.

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For memorable Chuck Taylor advertising, all you need to do is take a peek inside dive bars and clubs all around the world. Over the last 40 years, Chucks made their way from the hardcourt to the hardcore. From Wilt Chamberlain to the Ramones. It’s the lack of branding and simple design that’s kept so many musicians and artists coming back to the now almost century-old brand.

Last month, the company unveiled its first redesigned Chuck Taylor in the brand’s history. One look at the Chuck II, though, and it’s clear they weren’t about to mess with a magic formula. As VP/GM of Converse All Star Richard Copcutt told Fast Company at the time, the major design directive from customers might as well have been “Don’t f*** with my Chucks.”

According to Geoff Cottrill, vice president-general manager of brand and segments for Converse, the brand’s marketing strategy revolves around two core principles. The first is to celebrate the audience over the brand. And secondly, try to be useful. “We try to draw attention to our consumers first and how they use and enjoy our products,” says Cottrill. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of work trying to find ways to be useful to our consumers by taking some of our marketing investments and do things that are more meaningful than a TV spot no one’s going to remember in three months.”

So how do you become useful to and celebrate a consumer that doesn’t want you to change, and can get quickly turned off by some of the more conspicuous forms of traditional advertising?

Service Over Sponsorship

Music and advertising have had a long, mutually beneficial, and tumultuous relationship. Cottrill says that in most cases, it’s a brand that borrows equity from up-and-coming bands, from a scene, from a famous artist to get some form of social currency or cultural relevance. “Our core consumer, in many cases, are musicians and not someone we should try to borrow equity from, but someone we should serve,” says Cottrill. “Your job as a marketer is to understand your brand, its position in the marketplace, what differentiates you from your competitors, and then serve those consumers. The idea was not to borrow equity. In many cases, they’re already wearing our product, so we don’t have to convince anyone, so we decided to do something to celebrate them and build something useful for them.”

Photo: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company

Enter Rubber Tracks. Cottrill decided that the best way to be useful was to provide free studio time to musicians. Now, here’s when your eyebrows go up and you think, Yeah, but then the brand owns the content, can use it in advertising and cash in on any future sales, right? Nope.

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“The artists record for free, we keep nothing, we ask them for nothing, we don’t use their likeness in advertising, nothing,” says Cottrill. “And we’ve seen tremendous support back from these artists. They all have social media, fan bases and people who go to their shows, and they’ve really turned into positive ambassadors for the brand. For us, having a consumer appreciate us is pretty meaningful. And as a marketer, it means we’re doing something right.”

What started in China, just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the brand toured two local bands to five Chinese cities, has expanded into studios in New York, São Paulo, and inside the brand’s newly opened Boston headquarters, and resulted in free studio time for more than 1,000 artists.

But as obvious a success as it seems now, it was an idea Cottrill had to fight for. “There were many doubters,” he says. “My boss at the time must’ve said no a dozen different times. Every time I made a presentation to the organization, I kept saying it was going to happen. Finally I wore him down, and he let us do it. We just moved into our new headquarters, and we have a Rubber Tracks studio there, and it’s an amazing opportunity to interact with our consumer every day while they’re doing what they do. Not through a piece of glass and a focus group–they’re right there making music, and we get to observe that, ask them about our products, run ideas by them, all through real conversations.”

It’s been a success so far, but Cottrill says Rubber Tracks has also changed how they think about interactions with all its consumers.”I said to the team before we opened it, ‘We have to imagine that a reporter is standing outside that studio and is going to ask every single artist who comes in, ‘How was it?’ And they’re either going to say, ‘It was awful, they made us sing about their sneakers and own all our music, it’s terrible.’ Or it can be, ‘It was great, they really helped.’ That’s the criteria for success. It’s that simple. What would someone say after spending time with us? So we work hard to make sure the experience is as good and professional as possible. It’s changed how we think about our consumer experiences, and whether we’re really making it about them or whether it’s just another brand activation where the brand makes it about themselves.”

The brand recently unveiled the participants in its new Rubber Tracks global program, offering free recording time at 12 legendary recording studios around the world. They got more than 9,000 applications from up-and-coming international artists and chose a total of 84 acts, from 28 countries, to record at participating Abbey Road Studios in London, Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, and Tuff Gong in Kingston, Jamaica.

Photo: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company

Look At The Long Game

There may not be any iconic Chuck Taylor commercials, but the brand has taken its investment in music and been able to create a pretty impressive quiver of content, whether it’s interviews with established stars or live shows.

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“We could’ve spent the same amount of money to do a big eight-week TV campaign, bought time in event television programs, but three months later no one would remember any of it,” says Cottrill. “You could ask a dozen people today what the best commercial from the last Super Bowl was, and I can only remember one, and I do advertising for living. People just don’t remember too many ads anymore, there’s just too much noise. So for what it would’ve cost to do one big ad, we can operate a studio for four or five years. So it was about looking at the long game here, and not just temporary transactional advertising.”

Social Media Is A Restaurant

Since the Chuck II launch in early August, the brand’s social following has seen a significant boost, gaining more than 300,000 followers on Instagram, more than 200,000 on Facebook, and more than 40,000 on Twitter. But Cottrill says the brand has never seen its social channels as a primarily promotional tool.

“We often get asked how we’re going to monetize that community, but my answer is we already have,” says Cottrill. “All these 42 million people [Facebook fans] have already bought our sneakers, and now they’re congregating in this place called social media to talk about our brand. They’ve given us a gift, so we need to make sure to respect that and participate in the right way. Our social media isn’t about asking people to buy some new sneakers. I like to think about our social media as a great restaurant. It’s packed on a Friday night, everyone’s having fun, but the owner shouldn’t come strolling in, cut the music, stand up in the bar, and just yell, ‘YOU’RE IN MY RESTAURANT!’ The people will either throw food at you, walk out, or worse. People are there to have fun, so let them.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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