Skechers ponders how to keep its cool as it enters Canada

Everybody wants to be in with the in crowd....

Everybody wants to be in with the in crowd.

Certainly that’s been the modus operandi of U.S. sneaker brand Skechers, which has built its considerable equity in the teen marketplace by cultivating the cool kids.

But now, as Skechers prepares to unveil its first Canadian retail store in March, it faces the question familiar to many hot youth brands: Does its future lie with the trend-setting crowd, or the much larger mainstream set?

Phillip Nutt, president of Toronto-based footwear consultancy Wenco International Consultants, says the ‘I-gotta-be-first’ inner-city kids who kick off fashion trends generally lose interest within six weeks to six months. And that makes it difficult for a hip brand like Skechers to sustain long-term staying power.

Tania Koster, creative director of Ground Control Marketing, the Toronto-based agency responsible for promoting the brand in Canada, says that Skechers is capable of straddling the line between the middle-of-the-road and alternative markets. But she acknowledges that it’s a delicate balancing act.

Teens are increasingly cynical about advertising, Koster says, which means that a hard-hitting campaign can very quickly rob a brand of its cool quotient.

‘Nike and Adidas were the only two brands with top-of-mind awareness until about two years ago. Then the market shifted because kids became tired of getting hit over the head with them.’

Founded just nine years ago, Skechers has managed to establish itself as a significant player in a crowded market. As of Dec. 31, the Manhattan Beach, Ca.-based company reported a US$221-million backlog of incoming orders.

With growth has come a certain amount of flirtation with the mainstream market – as evidenced by the recent signing of teen-pop diva Britney Spears as a spokesperson. While nine-year-old girls may think the cleavage-baring Britney is all that, she’s got about as much street cred with the cool kids as Michael Bolton or Menudo.

Nutt, for his part, suggests that Skechers chairman and CEO Robert Greenberg signed Miss ‘Oops!…I Did it Again’ because he realizes the brand has already lost its hold on the hip crowd.

‘He knows that in the teen and young adult communities, they’re now laughing at kids who wear Skechers. So he’s after the same market Britney is after: those naïve pre-pubescent tweeners.’

Not so, says Koster, who argues that Britney’s tongue-in-cheek persona actually scores her a lot of points with the cool kids. ‘She knows where she stands in the music industry and how finicky it is. And you gain a lot of respect among kids when you have that attitude.’

That said, Koster is also quick to point out that Skechers will continue its established strategy of supporting underground culture, in an effort to lure the early adopters.

Here in Canada, for example, the brand will partner with Athlete’s World on a graffiti contest in February. The winner of the grand prize will get to showcase his or her spray-can talents on a billboard in Toronto.

Skechers produces its ad creative in-house. In the Canadian market, the brand generally advertises in teen-oriented magazines as Chart and Fuel, as well as on specialty channels such as MuchMusic and MusiquePlus. ‘Skechers has been careful about how they’ve done advertising,’ Koster says. ‘They stay focused on where the kids are.’

Gregory Skinner, director of Toronto-based youth research firm MINA, says a trendy sneaker brand like Skechers can’t afford to lose sight of its core consumer. ‘Once they start to stray from that [focus] is when people lose interest,’ he says.

One example of a label that has managed to grow in popularity while remaining edgy is Royal Elastics, Skinner says.

The four-year-old baby of Aussie university students Tull Price and Rodney Adler, Royal Elastics has established its hip credentials through support of emerging pop music personalities like British drum and bass maestro Goldie.

In Canada, the brand is distributed in funky boutiques like Toronto’s Groovy and Vancouver’s Warp.

Jill Norris, the label’s Vancouver-based national brand manager, says Royal Elastics has remained the shoe of choice among early adopters because it hasn’t attempted to saturate the market.

‘Tull and Rodney were approached by a lot of big [retail] players like Aldo who wanted to buy their shoes,’ she says. ‘But they didn’t want to spoil the name in one season.’

While it’s tough for sneaker brands to build long-term equity, the good news is that there’s no such thing as a final exit in the fashion world. A label that passes out of fashion can come back again, says Nutt.

Witness Vans, which filed for Chapter 11 after an ill-advised attempt at expansion in the early 1980s. The 35-year-old manufacturer proceeded to reorganize, putting its focus back on the boarders who constituted the core of its market. And today – thanks in large part to a shrewd marketing strategy that includes sponsorship of the popular Vans Warped alt-rock tour – it’s a profitable company, with net sales of US$205 million in 2000.