Say Converse sneakers to Baby Boomers or Generation X, Y, and Z-ers and the reaction will likely be a nod of approval. The brand, founded by Marquis M. Converse exactly a century ago, has endured—with many ups and downs—as a favorite of athletes, as well as creative types, by playing up its upstart image.
Converse's first model was a rubber-soled shoe, followed in 1917 by the innovative lightweight All-Star basketball shoe with a rubber outsole, durable toe cap, and ankle patch that helped stabilize the foot. Endorsed in the '30s by basketball star Charles H. Taylor (known as Chuck) in an early form of sponsorship, the All-Star was a sleeper hit that eventually became the official NBA shoe—as well an emblem of cool adopted by artists and musicians that extended into the grunge and punk-rock eras.
But the company ran into trouble in the '80s when companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Reebok transformed the athletic shoe industry by designing sneakers for, and developing brands around, superstars like Michael Jordan. Instead of a mere celebrity endorsement, these reigning star athletes became marketing machines for the shoes. Converse found itself at the back end of a dying marketing model and couldn't keep pace with the more technologically savvy footwear rivals. In 2001 the nearly bankrupt North Andover (Mass.) company was sold to private investors and then acquired in 2003 by Nike, which began a brand makeover.
The overhaul echoed Nike's own branding strategies, including a design-your-own shoe feature on its Web site and a premium line with special washes created by fashion designer John Varvatos. There's a high-performance shoe sponsored by Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade, and a new limited-edition Kurt Cobain model inscribed with the late rocker's drawings and writings (he was a Converse fan). So far the changes are paying off: Revenue rose 23% in 2007 and 40% in the second quarter of 2008, according to Nike.
Using cultural figures, both present and past, to enhance the Converse brand is a strategy that will continue under John Hoke, the unit's new global footwear vice-president, who will oversee product management, design, development, and innovation. Hoke, who shifts from his job as vice-president, global footwear design, at parent company Nike, regards the Converse sneaker as a classic retro product that was the "biological birth-parent of every modern sneaker." As Hoke moves into his new job, BusinessWeek.com contributing writer Ernest Beck spoke with him about where he wants to take the brand.
After channeling Kurt Cobain, what's next for Converse?
Our product strategy is to celebrate the 'then', leverage for the market now, and frame the future with a full range of products. The idea is to curate iconic figures from the past who adopted the brand, as well as those who wear them now from the worlds of music, politics, fashion, and sports.
For example, the Kennedy family wore them playing football, and so did Jackson Pollock and Keith Haring. Barack Obama was recently seen wearing Converse Product (Red). I can't say who might be chosen, but what we want to do is to create products, ideas, and consumer messages around certain figures, playing on what these people have accomplished and why they might have chosen Converse. We'll also work with young athletes like Dwayne Wade, who pushes our performance line; that's the future of Converse.
How does that differ from the brand strategy before Converse was acquired by Nike?
The brand was being watered down and cheapened. They came out with Chuck Taylor models that didn't capture the essence of the sneaker. They didn't have value or performance. Under Nike the brand has been moving in the direction I would like, but I want to accelerate that and broaden the scale.
We have a lot to work with because what's amazing about Converse is the brand elasticity. We're not a down-market brand, but we do have a more sensitive price point. Amazingly, Converse is a brand that is sold at Target and at Barney's.
So who buys Converse sneakers?
The core kid we are looking for is the "optimistic rebel" who wants to be different, irreverent, and creative. That's true for all the lines, from Wade to Varvatos. We want to continue to tap into that. In general, Converse is the everyman shoe; it inspires originality, and that's why it's popular among kids who play in garage bands. It is massively simple and has unbelievable attitude. They are like a canvas for self-expression. We want to nurture that idea. I think of Converse as a "bottom-up brand" that is adopted by consumers at a grassroots level, compared to a "top-down" brand like Nike's Michael Jordan line.
Why do you see potential in the "optimistic rebel" market?
It ties into the age of the Internet and personal empowerment. Kids want products that let them be who they are, rather than being a representative of a brand or a product. Converse fits that bill.
How can you maintain the brand's anti-Establishment image when you are owned by Nike and bring on board fashion designers and athletic superstars?
I like to think of Converse as a 100-year-old upstart. My hope is that we will have a range of distinctive and unique lines under the Converse name. But under my watch there won't be a Nike swoosh on any shoe by Converse, which has been around long before Nike and Adidas existed.
We also fit into a broader concept at Nike to become a portal for various brands aimed at different life stages. There will be the 15- to 18-year-old Converse kid, who would migrate to a high-performance Nike product, and then enter the working world wearing dressier shoes from Cole Haan (another Nike unit).
You are also on the board of office-furniture maker Herman Miller. With your experience in consumer products, what does the company want to learn from you?
In general I think much of the office furniture industry tends to be out of touch with the needs of the modern worker. I'm the youngest member of the board, so I bring a different mindset, as well as insights into the consumer sector. I review products and try to make sure that what they do is consumer- and user-savvy, that they have more of an end user perspective. I have helped them launch some new branding strategies and am working with Bruce Mau on moving Herman Miller beyond furnishings. We're looking at the atmospherics of how a person works in a certain environment, in high-performance human habitats.
John Hoke will be speaking at the @Issue design and business conference, to be held at TheTimesCenter in the New York Times building on Apr. 29. To register, visit cdf.org.