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Chuck Taylor Past and Future

In: Business and Management

Submitted By Emacgill
Words 3750
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With over 100 years in the shoe industry, Converse has been a brand with many different associations. It has marketed and positioned itself in numerous ways and has managed to maintain a high level of brand recognition with all ages and walks of life. It was the World’s first performance basketball sneaker. It was worn by the entire Army Air Corps in WWII. It was the official sponsor of the 1984 Olympics, and it was the shoe that Kurt Cobain was famously wearing when he died. It would be hard to argue that any other brand has been independent enough to be tied to so many market segments. This paper will provide insight into how Converse and the Chuck Taylor All Star was able to maintain its prominent position in the shoe market for over 100 years, despite competition, an ever changing market, and even bankruptcy.
History Of Converse In 1908, Converse began as a rubber shoe company specializing in tennis shoes, rubber boots and automobile tires. The All Star shoe was created in 1917 as a specialized basketball shoe. It was competing with A.G. Spalding, U.S. Rubber, and Goodrich. Spalding invented the basketball as we know it today, and the basketball shoe, which included a rubber sole for traction. Previously, athletes competed in a high top shoe with a leather sole. At this time, the sport of basketball was still primitive and lacked the national prominence it has today.
In 1921, Converse brought on Charles “Chuck” H. Taylor as a traveling sales representative to help promote the brand. Chuck was previously a professional basketball player who was looking for an off-season job. He was brought on as an athlete to help improve the shoe. Chuck made design changes for traction and added the ankle patch for extra support. He later went across the nation putting on basketball clinics to teach children the sport of basketball. While on these tours, Chuck would sell shoes from his car and form partnerships with local sporting goods stores. But mainly, he would increase the overall popularity of the sport of basketball.
In 1923, Converse added Chuck’s signature to the iconic ankle patch. The shoes now became known as “Chuck Taylors” or simply “Chucks”. The shoes began a surge of popularity and were synonymous with the sport of basketball. Basketball first became an Olympic sport in 1936 and Chucks were the official shoe of team USA. During World War II, Converse supplied the US Air Force with their A6 Flying Boot. Along with being manufactured in the USA, these partnerships helped create the image of Chucks being the American shoe.
As Chuck Taylor tirelessly worked to promote the sport of basketball, the nation’s interest in it surged. In 1949, the National Basketball Association was formed as a merger of two previous basketball leagues and basketball became a major professional sport. In 1957, Chuck Taylor was recognized as the “Ambassador to Basketball” and in 1968, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his lifetime commitment to advancing the sport.
Various design changes were made during this period. In 1949, the classic black and white Chuck Taylor All Star high top was introduced to be more eye-catching than the monochrome black models. The white toe guard and outer wrap were added along with white shoelaces. In 1957, the low cut “Oxford” All Star was introduced as a more casual alternative to the high top. In the ‘70s Converse purchased the trademark rights to the “Jack Purcell” sneaker. It had a very similar design to the Chuck Taylor All-Star except with a signature line referred to as a “smile” across the toe. In 1974, the “One Star”, a low-cut performance shoe for basketball, was introduced which was later adopted by surfers and skaters as a retro, alternative lifestyle look.
In the late ‘50s Converse had an 80% share of the entire sneaker industry. More factories were opened to expand production and in the1960s, 90% of all college and professional basketball players were wearing Converse.
In 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single NBA game wearing his Converse and the record has never been broken. In 1976, Julius Erving endorsed Converse, putting his stamp on the company’s revolutionary Pro Leather, which would become known as “The Dr. J.”
In 1969, Chuck Taylor passed away and also at this time strong competition began to emerge in the industry with Nike being a leading contender. The athletic footwear industry introduced many options to the shoes that included new models, new colors, and technology innovations such as pumps and air cells.
In the early ‘70s shoe companies began contracting with college basketball coaches to create custom sneakers and apparel for their team. The higher the team’s ranking the more often their games would be televised which would give greater product exposure to the sneakers. Coaching salaries were being supplemented as part of their contract, enabling some coaches to make 6 and 7-digit incomes. This further expanded the market to the fans that now wanted to own a pair of their team’s shoes in order to express their team spirit.
The sneaker industry expanded into new markets as many changes occurred in American culture due to the events taking place beginning in the post-WWII years that were shaping society. There was a spike in birthrates worldwide as the Baby Boomers were born and economic prosperity grew. The U.S. commitment of troops to the Vietnam War started and anti-war protests became prevalent especially on college campuses and among the youth. Movements to fight for civil rights among African Americans occurred as well as the movement for women’s rights as more women were entering the workforce. Television brought real-time coverage of these events into the homes of Americans and a counter-culture was beginning to take shape among youth that including experimentation with drugs and illicit sexual behavior. An expression of individuality was tantamount and Hollywood and the entertainment industry became icons for fashion. Fashion was becoming more casual. Youth were wearing jeans, leather jackets and sneakers. Athletic shoes became popular to wear as leisure shoes.
Chuck Taylor’s Converse All-Stars were being endorsed in the music industry, in film and in television. Endorsements through Hollywood and the entertainment industry, whether official or unofficial, helped the All-Star to transcend basketball and become deeply entrenched in popular American culture. It was the premier shoe of the elite basketball player and became a fashionable leisure shoe that everyone wore. It became popular among baby boomers, the counter-culture, rock musicians and the younger generation because of comfort, fashionable colors and their distinct look. They were an alternative to the high-priced high-performance athletic shoes made by the competitors. Converse responded by designing and manufacturing the shoes in prints, patterns, unusual colors and special models for different age groups to appeal to this new market for sneakers. By the 1980’s Converse sneakers found their way onto the feet of punk rockers, but overall demand for the shoe was beginning to decline. Converse recognized its need to start looking more into the performance of its shoe, specifically for athletes. They created one of the first biomechanic labs, and had famous names like Larry Bird, Dr. J, and Magic Johnson on their lists of endorsers. It seemed as though Converse was set up to continue to be one of the paramount brands in the sneaker world. But despite being the official sponsor of the 1984 Olympics, and a bevy of celebrities standing behind their brand, Converse fell victim to their competitors. The Chuck Taylor, made popular by it’s simple design and notorious look, could no longer keep up with all of the competitors’ shoes. Nike, Adidas and Reebok were creating shoes with pumps, and cushions and springs and gels. They were looking to revitalize the running shoe and turn it into something that molded to your feet, and could be worn for leisure activity. They expanded on their lines to include shoes for aerobics and cross training and spent millions of dollars on research and design. With all these new types of shoes, Converse’s competitors’ companies created more revenue, and with more revenue, they were able to spend more money on their endorsement deals. Nike had an entire line of shoes and clothes revolving around Michael Jordan, whereas Magic Johnson was so frustrated that at the end of his career in 1992 he stated. “Converse as a company is stuck in the 60’s and 70’s. They think the Chuck Taylor days are still here.” (Inside Hoops) It seemed as though the infamy of the Chuck Taylor and its lack of innovation was now the driving force behind Converse’s decline. On January 22nd of 2001, Converse filed for bankruptcy claiming, while it had assets of $202.1 million, they had debts of $226.2 million as of Sept. 30, 2000. The company closed three North American manufacturing facilities and cut about 1,000 of 1,200 jobs. Despite these drastic steps of trying to save the fledgling company, Converse had to give into one of its biggest competitors, Nike. Nike purchased Converse for $305 million in 2003.
New Product Development Process
The overall design of the Chuck Taylor shoe has not changed since the 1920s; however, today the shoe is infinitely customizable. David Maddocks, Converse’s CMO from 2001-2007, describes, “We were sitting in a meeting one day, and someone said that Chucks are like T-shirts for your feet. You've got to remember that the company did five core colors for 60 years: black, white, navy, red, and natural. High-top or low-top. When we had that T-shirt insight, it was like, ‘...We can make thousands of versions of the same shoe’” (Marcheese). Converse did just that. At its peak, Converse produced 500 different versions of the Chuck Taylor, collaborating with designers John Varvatos and Missoni, as well as U2 frontman Bono (Marcheese). To celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2008, Converse released a Ramones shoe. Since then, Converse has also done Chuck Taylor collaborations with musicians such as Kurt Cobain, the Clash, Black Sabbath, the Who, Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne, Blondie, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, AC/DC, and Metallica (Marcheese). Chuck Taylor special editions are not limited to musicians; in 2013, Converse released a Chinese New Year version featuring a snake motif, as well as a version showcasing The Simpsons. The vast variety of special editions has made the Chuck Taylor an especially popular item among shoe collectors. On the Converse website, consumers can create their own pair of Chuck Taylors, choosing colors and motifs for each component of the shoe, including the stitching. By treating Chuck Taylors as “T-shirts for your feet”, Converse has empowered consumers to use the Chuck Taylor as a literal blank canvas for customers to express themselves through colors, designs, and images.
Key Factors Contributing to Success
Converse enjoyed a great deal of success in the 2000s, shifting from selling a million pairs of Chuck Taylors globally in 2001 to 55 million pairs in 2007 (Marcheese). Chuck Taylors were once again omnipresent in American pop culture. Designer John Varvatos provides insight from the fashion perspective, stating:
Converse got a bit lucky in the early 2000s. At the same time that ownership was changing and the company had a new influx of capital, these young garage-rock bands like the Strokes were coming up with the classic rock'n'roll look, wearing Chuck Taylors... And...skinny jeans got popular in a big way in the 2000s, and Chuck Taylors looked great with skinny jeans. Hipsters helped save Converse” (Marcheese).
Chuck Taylors were frequently worn by musicians, with Avril Lavigne and Fall Out Boy wearing them in photo shoots and album covers, and became popular among teens and young adults emulating them. Chuck Taylors were also popular among hipsters, an artsy subculture that rejects the mainstream. Converse Philippines marketing manager Kit Santos explains the attitude evoked Chuck Taylors, saying “For the free-spirited youth or any creative individual who makes his silent but unrestrained statement with his choice of footwear, no other brand comes close to Converse when it comes to declaring one’s passion for life and the irreverent rock star attitude of a never-say-die character” (Valisno). Chuck Taylors were also frequently worn by hip-hop artists, a trend dating back to the 1980s.
Chuck Taylors were also embraced by straight-laced non-musicians. On the one hand, Chuck Taylors are an American classic, and on the other, they are a symbol of rebellion. Thus, wearing them is a low-risk way to try on a rock and roll personality (Marcheese). For this reason, Chuck Taylors’ current top demographic is teenage girls and can be seen on the feet of Taylor Swift and former Disney star Demi Lovato. In the 2000s, it became a trend for people to wear Chuck Taylors at formal occasions, such as proms and weddings, in order to feel more comfortable, to express personality, or to simply add a touch of whimsy. For instance, staff members of Bryan Voltaggio’s fine-dining restaurants in Maryland wear Chuck Taylors in order to appear less uptight. Voltaggio stated “We didn’t want to appear stuffy... It kind of softens the experience a little bit” (Carman). As a fashion accessory, the Chuck Taylors’ simplicity enabled it to be adopted by a wide variety of groups, and wearers could give them whatever meaning they wanted.
Current Marketing Efforts
Converse current marketing efforts reinforce the Chuck Taylors’ status as the creative person’s shoe. Prior to 2008, Converse did very little to engage customers; its website was little more than informational resource for retailers. This changed in 2007 when Converse hired Geoff Cottrill, who formerly held marketing roles at Starbucks, Coca Cola, and Proctor and Gamble, as Chief Marketing Officer. His first task was to build a leadership team to return Converse’s focus to the brand’s heritage and loyal fans. A campaign in early 2008 showed icons like Hunter S. Thompson and Sid Vicious wearing Chuck Taylors, with the slogan, “Welcome to the Converse Century.” He transformed the Converse website to a consumer-friendly collection of product information and user-created content (Cullers). Cottrill also increased Converse’s presence on social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. However, instead of bombarding customers with advertisements, his strategy has been to act as a host for emotional connections between the brand and its customers. Cottrill describes, “You have to have the courage to let go and not try to control the conversation or broadcast advertising messages every chance you get. Be respectful of the time between purchases of your product by adding value and contributing the conversation. When it comes time again to purchase, your relationship with them should pay off” (Wasserman).
In 2011, Converse opened the Rubber Tracks recording studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where up-and-coming musicians can record music for free. Cottrill stated “We think of it as giving back to the people - musicians - who have given so much to make Chuck Taylors what they are” (Marcheese). Musicians apply to use the space, and Converse posts the newly-recorded songs on social media, carefully avoiding use of the Converse logo and appearing corporate. While some independent musicians think that using Rubber Tracks is selling out, the costs associated with producing music are so prohibitively high that many musicians clamor to apply. Musicians and Converse have a symbiotic relationship: musicians need money to thrive, and Converse needs coolness to sell shoes. The Rubber Tracks effort, along with sponsoring concerts and producing songs featuring popular acts like Pharrell and Gorillaz, is a good way for Converse to reach out to musicians and music-lovers without annoying them and to create a buzz around the brand almost subliminally.
Converse also targets the skateboarder demographic through promotional and charitable events. In 2009, Converse formed a team of brand ambassadors consisting of prominent skateboarders, and in 2012, the brand hosted the Coastal Carnage skate event in conjunction with Nike’s U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California. In May 2013, in a desolate part of Barcelona, Converse collaborated with artists, skaters, and builders to create the first CONS SPACE, a challenging and attractive skate environment (Yoon). As it does with musicians, Converse targets skateboarders by providing services and venues to showcase their skills .
Converse also celebrates its basketball heritage and gives back to communities by hosting events such as Open Gym, which has provided children in six U.S. cities with safe places to play basketball (Cullers). Since 2007, over 50,000 children have participated in Open Gym. Combining Converse’s position in the music and basketball communities with its sense of playfulness, Converse also hosts the Band of Ballers three-on-three basketball tournament consisting of up-and-coming musical artists, streamed over different media outlets, including MTV (Cullers). Through these events, Converse provides a service, a venue to play and entertainment, while raising brand awareness among new demographics, like children and sports fans.
Converse’s latest ad campaigns for Chuck Taylors are irreverent, humorous, and emphasize the fun lifestyle associated with the brand. Many suggestively use the word Chuck, such as the provocative advertisements for the John Varvatos collection directing customers to “Get Chucked” and another featuring a guitarist doing a mid-air split stating “Chuck It.” Converse’s current campaign features the statement “Shoes are boring. Wear sneakers” and compares those with conventional lives to young, beautiful people wearing Chuck Taylors. While many of Converse’s advertisements sell the lifestyle, some are indirectly connected to specific products. For instance, a 2012 campaign called “Enter Their World” was featured in comic books and enabled readers to scan a code with their phones and insert themselves via photo upload into an interactive comic book featuring DC Comics characters. Although the advertisement coincided with the release of the DC Comics special edition Chuck Taylor, the shoes themselves do not appear in the advertisement. The primary goal of Converse’s advertisements is to entertain viewers; selling Chuck Taylors is secondary. Because of this, Converse’s advertisements are very appealing and successful.
Chuck Taylor’s Future
Despite its iconic status, it will be a challenge for Converse to maintain the favor of its fans, particularly the young, fickle hipster crowd. While Geoff Cottrill insists that Converse will never enter the music publishing industry, by putting its name on Rubber Tracks and various concert series, Converse runs the risk of appearing too corporate (Wasserman). Fans who were initially drawn to the brand for its offbeat, independent spirit may feel betrayed. Musician Andrew W.K., who has made songs for Converse, put it best when he stated, “Converse is in an interesting position. It’s like when Pabst Blue Ribbon realized that hipsters were drinking their beer, and they started marketing to hipsters, and now maybe it’s not as cool. Whenever a brand positions itself to mean something to people, they risk losing people who don’t like to be marketed to” (Marcheese). Converse has succeeded in simply creating venues, such as its social media pages and Rubber Tracks, for its fans to express their creativity while limiting targeted advertising; it should continue to do so in order to maintain its cool factor among its fans.
Converse faces increasing competition in the casual sneaker category. Other retro sneakers have made recent comebacks. For instance, young adult retailer J. Crew currently carries a line of Vans sneakers, embraced by skateboarders in the 1970s and 1980s. Sperry Top-Sider boat shoes, originally released in 1935, are popular among clean-cut youth and come in a variety of colors and prints. Nike Dunk sneakers, originally released in 1985, are also increasingly popular. As with Chuck Taylors, Nike Dunks can be customized by customers online and are available in a variety of special limited editions; Nike risks cannibalizing Chuck Taylors by reviving these vintage lines. Additionally, Converse faces competition from socially-responsible newcomer TOMS; founded in 2006, for every pared-down slip-on shoe sold, TOMS provides a pair to a needy child. Faced with this competition, Converse has attempted to keep the Chuck Taylor brand fresh by experimenting with different variations, such as slip-ons, slides, and boots. However, Chuck Taylors’ appeal has always been simplicity and consistency. By retaining its classic colors and style and providing the ability to customize to those who want it, Converse accommodates consumers who are nostalgic and those who are avant-garde.
While the Chuck Taylor was once just a staple in Americans’ wardrobe, it has been embraced around the world. Today, a pair of Chuck Taylors is purchased globally every 43 seconds. They are especially popular in Asia; in 2011, five million pairs were sold in China, up 50 percent from 2008 (Langfitt). Converse has opened flagship stores in Asia, including Beijing and Manila. Interestingly, as in America, Asian customers appreciate Chuck Taylors for their historical value, and members of the artistic and musical communities in Asia have embraced Chuck Taylors as a symbol of creativity and individuality. Fashion is cyclical, and if Chuck Taylors fall out of favor in the U.S., Converse will likely be able to market them successfully abroad.

References

Aamidor, Abraham. Chuck Taylor, Converse All Star [Electronic Resource] : The True Story Of The Man Behind The Most Famous Athletic Shoe In History / Abraham Aamidor. n.p.: Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c2006., 2006. ShaRC -- MIC Consortium Shared Catalog. Web. 23 June 2013.

Cullers, Rebecca. "Stepping Up." Adweek. N.p., 13 Sept. 2010. Web. 23 June 2013. .

Klara, Robert. "Chuck's Big Comeback." Adweek. N.p., 4 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 June 2013.

Langfitt, Frank. “China Laces Up Its Chuck Taylors.” NPR. N.p. 9 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 June 2013.

Marcheese, David. "Chucks & Bucks." Spin 28.5 (2012): 87. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 23 June 2013.

Valisno, Jeffrey O. “Marketing Rocking the Sneakers.” BusinessWorld. N.p. 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 23 June 2013.

Wasserman, Todd. “How Converse Became the Biggest Little Sneaker Brand on Facebook.” Mashable. N.p. 4 May 2011. Web. 23 June 2013.

Yoon, Joy. “Converse Skateboarding Takes Over Barcelona with CONS SPACE 001 BCN.” Hypebeast. N.p. 28 May 2013. Web. 23 June 2013.

[1] Inside Hoops. www.insidehoops.com/converse-history.shtml
[2] Forbes. www.forbes.com/2001/01/22/0122converse.html
[3] “”. “”

http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/converse-inc-history/ http://chucksconnection.com/articles/the-original-all-star.html http://www.insidehoops.com/converse-history.shtml

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