View from the C-Suite: K-Swiss outfits the next gen of CEOs

In an unconventional move, the sneaker brand spent the last two years labelling itself as the shoe for entrepreneurs. And it's paying off.

Joanne FletcherThere are give-or-take 582 million business builders dotted across the planet’s seven continents. That means the odds of becoming an entrepreneur is about 14%. Compare that to the chances of becoming an athlete or star: only 0.03% of high-school basketball players will make it to the NBA, while 0.0086% of the global pop are considered “famous people” (according to The Atlantic‘s latest count).

Those greater odds of being your own boss vs. finding fortune in fame helped K-Swiss pick a decidedly different lane for a sneaker brand, back when it pivoted in 2017.

Nike and Adidas have become market monsters, dominating the sneaker sphere by owning the athlete and hip-hop culture scene. K-Swiss simply couldn’t compete against the Coke and Pepsi brands of the shoe biz, explains Joanne Fletcher, the CEO of K-Swiss Canada distributor Mint Green Group: “And we realised that we didn’t want to be somebody’s seventh-favourite cola.”

But stealing market share from the seemingly untouchable was too daunting a task, so after about a year of studying youth culture, the 53-year-old heritage brand found its own white space, targeting what Fortune reports as today’s “millennipreneurs.” These self-starters, hustlers and around-the-clock grinders have been on the minds of K-Swiss marketers across the 80 countries the brand distributes its shoes to for the past two years, with each market speaking to this growing group, primarily through D2C tactics and as part of K-Swiss’ global “CEOs wear Sneakers” platform, says Fletcher.

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In Canada, the brand – which was founded by two entrepreneurial brothers in California in 1966 – is using content marketing to engage primarily 30-somethings who have caught the entrepreneur bug. It began publishing a monthly newsletter this May, distributing stories to a relatively small, but significantly “invested” audience of entrepreneurs, according to Fletcher, a former marketer for brands like Nike, Puma and Kraft Foods.

The newsletter is unique to Canada, and it features stories of Canadian entrepreneurs across sectors and at different stages of their journey. A team of local influencers have also been chosen to carry the brand’s aspirational messaging, following the lead of K-Swiss ambassador and serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk after he assisted in launching the platform in 2017 with a shoe collab.

Fletcher says the brand competes more directly against the likes of Fila and Champion. And she adds that ever since K-Swiss began globally courting business builders – the “heroes of culture,” as the brand calls them – via content marketing (the U.S., for its part, has a podcast series of the same “CEOs in Sneakers” name), the company has seen sales (and its marketing budget) grow. In Canada K-Swiss sneaker sales more than tripled between 2018 and 2019, according to Fletcher, who, while on a call with strategy, gave a lowdown on the thinking, insights, results and learnings from the brand’s unconventional re-positioning.

The strategy: why a global brand reset was needed

“K-Swiss had struggled up until [2017], it had lost its way, its relevance. Yes, it was a heritage brand, and it will always have that history and nostalgic value; but nostalgia isn’t enough these days. You need to blend that with a contemporary and meaningful angle that gets you into conversation with younger people. We have two consumers: we have the 30-something that remembers K-Swiss from high school when it was the ‘it’ shoe; and then we have the 18- to 23-year-old who knows K-Swiss because they know sneaker culture, but they never wore it themselves. We needed to reintroduce the brand to that generation and do it in a way that’s different. It was a starting point for our entire global brand reset [where] we wanted to be the sneaker that outfits the next generation of CEOs.”

The consumer: how the CEO persona has evolved

“Ten years ago, if you heard ‘CEOs Wear Sneakers,’ it wouldn’t have made sense. We all had such an ingrained perception of who and what a CEO was, but the rules have changed and the face of the CEO has changed. They’re not 50-year-old grey suit, wing-tipped shoe-wearing CEOs. It’s a much younger and diverse group; and they’re not just sitting behind desks. They’re active, they’re out pitching, sourcing, financing. The pace today calls for a pair of sneakers, and that’s one of the reasons our message is resonating with people. Even if they’re not CEOs themselves, it’s that mindset and that hustle and that motivation to trade on their smarts and the brand they’re building. The sneakers that they wear is a big part of the brand itself. And that then ties back to the CEOs that we’re profiling.”

The results: what the content strategy has done for sales

“Right now, the audience [for our digital content] is in the thousands, it’s not in the hundreds of thousands. But what has been really encouraging is the conversion. That’s been a real proof point that people are responding. There aren’t just those one-time visits, we are getting staying power and engagement. We have a healthy wholesale business  K-Swiss is in sneaker boutiques, the Foot Lockers, Sport Cheks, and DSWs of the world, we run the gamut. But we are seeing the most and fastest growth on our website, which is directly attributable to the message that we’re putting out there in our content and newsletter, and through social.”

The impact: how the brand is transcending the product

“A few weeks after we launched one of our most recent Gary Vaynerchuk collections, I was wearing the shoes in the airport and as I was going through security, somebody else in the lane was wearing the same Gary V shoe. I saw them, and they saw me, and we realised we were wearing the same shoe. We never said anything, but we gave each other a sort of eye contact and there was this really neat connection, acknowledgement and mutual respect of everything that the shoe represented. We were total strangers, and we were probably on different stages of our own journey, but it was the first time I felt that the shoes were more than sneakers. This was the transformative power of a brand. It was so motivating for me. And so I want to make sure that K-Swiss continues to spark these connections throughout the community and Canada.”