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When Yoko Ono married John Lennon, she wore a pair of Keds. Photos from the company’s archives also show the iconic white canvas shoes with the blue rubber logo on the feet of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.
But to market the shoes — which celebrate their 100th birthday this year — to today’s customer, Keds is also turning to Taylor Swift, Ciara, Allison Williams, K-pop star Krystal Jung and wearable tech pioneer Billie Whitehouse.
“What truly does keep me up at night is our customer,” said Emily Culp, chief marketing officer for Keds. “I think it’s an honor to try and connect with her, and it’s an amazing intellectual and emotional challenge.”
Wearing a pair of thick-soled black Keds, Culp spoke about the brand’s efforts to connect its heritage with the modern consumer at the third annual Retail and Consumer Packaged Goods Summit held Tuesday and Wednesday in New York. The event was organized by Knowledge@Wharton, Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center and Momentum Event Group. (Culp talked more about plans for Keds’ 100th anniversary in an interview on the K@W show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM. Hear that interview using the player above.)
For the 100th anniversary of the product, Culp’s team tried to build a campaign that not only celebrated Keds, but also celebrated and promoted the empowerment of women. “At end of the day, our customer has a huge variety of things to be inspired by,” Culp said. “How do we become part of that?”
Additionally, Culp said, the company had to figure out how to play off that story once the customer arrived in the store, either physically or online, particularly on mobile. “How do you engage her?” Culp asked. “She is always on; she is on mobile; she has a voracious appetite for content. We have to figure out what content she wants, when she wants it and in what format.”
The “Ladies First Since 1916” campaign allows Keds to bring its heritage – and a wealth of iconic customers, which also include pop culture powerhouses like Baby from Dirty Dancing and Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell – to the forefront, and also to become part of the current conversation about female empowerment in an authentic way, Culp said. “For us, it is truly part of our DNA, something we can point to and proudly be affiliated with.” (Keds also offers product lines for men and children.)
Another aspect of getting back to the roots of Keds was manufacturing. The brand, which is owned by Stride Rite and Sperry parent Wolverine World Wide, is about to release a line of shoes that were 100% designed, sourced and made in the U.S., including being hand-finished by women at a factory in Michigan. Such an effort is “really hard, very expensive and not normally done,” Culp noted. “This was a labor of love. It took our design and product team over two years.”
The Keds customer is surprisingly diverse – or so Culp found when she set out to learn more about her: “What does she do? Where does she live? What does she read? What does she eat? Where does she vacation?” Culp visited stores and scoured social media, finding that the Keds customer traverses ethnicities, life experiences and interests.
“At end of the day, our customer has a huge variety of things to be inspired by. How do we become part of that?”
That’s where Ciara, Williams, Swift, Jung and Whitehouse come in. All are part of the Keds Collective, a group of women chosen by Culp as ambassadors for the brand. Collectively, she said, the women reach more than one billion consumers worldwide on social media.
“At one point, my office looked like A Beautiful Mind — I had thousands of pictures all over my office of all these women around the world,” he said. “I spoke to every single one of these women and one of my questions was, “What’s your favorite pair of Keds? If you can’t answer that question, we shouldn’t be in partnership.”
A Sense of Style
Another of her questions took some of the women by surprise. “I asked, ‘What’s important to you? What are you trying to do in your career?’” Culp said. “To me, a partnership should be a strategic win-win for both parties.” For example, Williams said she wanted to get into directing, and so she was able to work with the director of the new Keds spots that she also stars in. The moment at the end of the ad — which depicts Williams packing for a trip — when she grabs a bow and quiver of arrows off of her bed was Williams’ idea, Culp added.
That beat in the ad was intended to add a sense of quirkiness. Some of Culp’s other favorite visuals from the campaign show the breadth of the product line – it’s more than just white canvas these days – and how they can be styled. The brand has also played up the fashion aspect of Keds through partnerships with Topshop and French retailer Colette. “One of the key things to do in marketing in this day and age is to get a message to you, but to also have you pause and absorb it,” Culp said.
“I spoke to every single one of these women and one of my questions was, “What’s your favorite pair of Keds? If you can’t answer that question, we shouldn’t be in partnership.”
In addition to exclusive partnerships with high-end retailers like Opening Ceremony and Barney’s, Keds are also available in mass market retailers like Macy’s. They are also sold through the brand’s own website and via Amazon. “That’s one of the most important doors for us,” Culp said. “It’s really important to me given the prominence of Amazon within the search space that we have the right presence there from a branding perspective.”
Keds is measuring success of the campaign not just through shoes sold – sales are more than eight million a year, or about 14 pairs of shoes every minute – but also in hashtags, snaps, Instagram photos and pins.
“We’re mobile first,” Culp said, noting that she saw a statistic that a woman looks at her phone upwards of 150 times a day – and that she clocked in at more than 300 when she tested it personally. “That is the screen that my entire team develops for. Everything we do with content starts with mobile and you fan out from there.”
“Everything we do with content starts with mobile, and you fan out from there.”
For example, Culp’s team noticed that some Keds consumers were spending a lot of time searching Pinterest for ways to customize fun shoes for their bridal parties. Now consumers can customize shoes for their weddings or any other reason through the custom shoe studio on the brand’s website. Soon after joining Keds in 2015, Culp insisted that the brand start a Snapchat account, which she described as “one of the most important platforms for our consumer.”
Every member of her team has a compilation of Instagram photos of Keds-wearing customers from around the world posted in his or her office. “The litmus test is you are designing for her,” Culp said. “Is she going to get value on whatever you’re doing?”