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That's Not Cool

Airwalk: Playing Hard to Get

Sometimes, to regain your cool you need a whole new brand. It's working for Airwalk, the Golden, Colorado-based shoe-maker targeting skateboarders. Founded in 1986, the company was one of the first in the action sports arena, which has mainstreamed with 12-to-20-year-olds, thanks to events such as NBC's Gravity Games and ESPN's X-Games.

But Airwalk went through a period a few years ago when it was pretty uncool with its core audience. The typical skater is someone who "can smell a fake from a mile away," says Bruce Pettet, 37, CEO of Tare7, the holding company that includes Airwalk. In trying to reach a larger audience, the company's message and products had drifted away from the hard-core skater. "Quite frankly, we left our authenticity," Pettet says. "It was a huge mistake."

Trying to make these kids think Airwalk was cool again wouldn't work. Instead, the company needed a whole new brand. Last spring, it released Genetic, a shoe for the hard-core skater. While the Airwalk brand continues to seek mass appeal, Genetic is aimed at action sports fanatics who care about performance as much as looks.

Genetic has a strict distribution policy to keep it exclusive and harder to find, and it's advertised only in skate publications. You have to be in the know to get it, which only makes the shoe cooler to the people who wear it.

The company is going with a grass-roots approach to reach this consumer. Category managers are all under 30, and Pettet spends a lot of time hanging out at skate parks, just watching and listening. And the strategy is working: Domestic bookings for Genetic in 2002 are 80 percent higher than last year. Total company sales are about $100 million annually.

So which strategy will work for you when your brand is cooling off with consumers? "You need to reassess what's important to your customer and how the emotional connection with your brand has changed," DeLuca says. "Then reinvent your relationship with them on their terms."

Who knows? You might find yourself in the right place at the right time all over again.

CASE STUDY #2

LIFE'S A NICHE

Can having customers from different age groups make your product seem less cool? When Abercrombie & Fitch saw a 14 percent drop in sales at stores open at least one year in last July alone, some analysts blamed it on the chain turning off its college-age customers who didn't want to be buying the same clothes as tweens and teens. To regain its cool with the college crowd, Abercrombie & Fitch has started two new stores: Hollister Co., a new, lower-priced store aimed at 14-to-18-year-olds, and abercrombie (with a small "a") for 7-to-14-year-olds.

But the opposite is true for Queens, New York-based shoe designer and retailer Steve Madden Ltd. Teens, Gen Xers and boomers all wear his shoes. Having such a wide demographic seems to work-company revenues for the third quarter of 2001 stood at $70.25 million, an increase of 16.9 percent over 2000-and it doesn't seem to bother founder Steve Madden. In fact, knowing older consumers buy his shoes excites him. He says, "I think that having older buyers makes our shoes more cool."


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Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the June 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: That's Not Cool.

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