View from the C-Suite: Cougar Shoes blends fashion and function

The footwear brand's new VP marketing talks about growing awareness in a highly promotional retail environment.


It’s been nearly a decade since Cougar Shoes, a Canadian footwear brand with a long story but relatively little brand recognition, sought to reinvent itself under president Steve Sedlbauer. As the son of founder Walter Sedlbauer, Steve and his brother Ron bought the Cougar trademark out of bankruptcy in 1996, but waited until 2009 to overhaul the brand’s look and feel.

Now, ten years later, the brand recruited Jackie Charest as VP of marketing in May, with the family owned and operated company looking to raise greater brand awareness as it expands both here and abroad. Once known for its 1970s’ caramel leather “Pillow Boot,” much has changed about the company in recent years, but it remains “one of the best-kept secrets out there,” Charest says.

Charest, who arrived with experience as VP of marketing from Holt Renfrew, has a strong foundation from which to build: during the most recent fiscal year, which ended in June, Cougar’s business increased 35% year-over-year. Sales were up 100% in the U.S. and 10% in Canada, with 32% of the increase attributable to new business (split fairly evenly between Canada and the U.S.). Next year, Charest says Cougar projects an increase of 27% in business, although its direct-to-consumer ecommerce business remains under-penetrated and thus “very small.”

Charest recently gave strategy the skinny on her plans for the brand and the challenges facing the footwear industry in Canada.

Cougar Boots

Cougar Shoes has a long history in Canada. How does the brand position itself today? 

I’ve been describing it to people as sitting at the cross-section of fashion and function. It’s modern footwear made to function… it’s fashionable footwear [but] not too fashion-y. And it performs. We started off as a winter boot company and we’re known for extraordinary quality. As we’ve built out our spring/summer line, we’ve taken that same approach, and all of the spring/summer range is water repellent and stain resistant, which is a big point of difference.

A couple of years ago, prior to me getting here, the brand repositioned [with help from Toronto-based creative agency Concrete, which was coincidentally Holt Renfrew’s AOR]. The look and feel and the whole product evolution of where we are today was really spearheaded by that, so I feel like I’ve inherited a well-positioned brand. It’s not like I’m coming here to blow up the positioning, because it’s actually pretty good. It’s about communicating it.

How will you help the brand continue to expand in Canada and the U.S.? 

My number one focus is growing brand awareness. We really need to educate consumers that Cougar isn’t just about boots or the brand they grew up with. The brand has come a long way and it’s very different from the way people remember it. Over time, you’ll see the biggest shift in what we’re doing on the consumer side of our business in terms of how we talk to our customers, increasing our engagement level, how we’re positioning the brand out there.

We’re continuing to expand distribution in a big way with much larger retail partners, especially in the U.S. This fall, we’re launching three new big partners, Bloomingdales, Zappos and Anthropology. You will start to see Cougar having a much larger presence within retail. That’s really done by building up those retailer relationships and participating in their key campaigns, getting more visibility within their channels, not just our own channels. On the brand side, I’m looking at increasing our paid advertising. You’re also going to see some design collaborations and partnerships. Coming from the world that I worked in, I have a lot of experience in that.

Some time ago, Cougar decided to move manufacturing outside of Canada. Has that had an impact on the brand identity and its home-grown positioning? 

No, not at all. We manufacture around the world. We do stuff in Italy, some in Vietnam, China. We go to the best places. It’s not like the whole boot is made in one place. We could have the soles made in one country, the leather topping made in another place. [But] everything is designed here, the team is here, and then it’s brought back here. I’m actually looking at ramping up [messaging around our Canadian heritage]. If you look at our website and read about our story, you wouldn’t know we’re a Canadian brand. That’s something that I’m looking at, as we go forward.

What are the biggest challenges facing the fashion and footwear industries today? 

Price doesn’t matter if the product looks good and delivers on its promise. Brands run into trouble when they don’t deliver on their promise. One of the [other] challenges that brands face, and they’re not unique to Cougar, is understanding how to work with online-based retailers. Understanding how it works versus a traditional model. When you’re in an online business, you’re forecasting orders and stocking inventory against it. That’s been a huge learning curve. Picking the right partners, too, is incredibly hard. We get approached from time to time from what I would call more mass retailers and we say no, because it’s not the right positioning, it’s not where we want the brand to be. There’s [the possibility of a] quick financial gain, but it doesn’t sustain over time.

The other area in retail I think has changed, at least in Canada, is that it’s a highly promotional environment. It’s a difficult game. Once you start in that promotional game you start buying your business. Cougar is not [as] promotional. We do your typical Boxing Day sale, but we’re not on promotion every other week. That was highly attractive to me. The owners have a really clear vision of where they want their brand and they’re willing to stay the course.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.