When Nike plunked down $305 million for a slightly down-at-the-heel Converse in 2003, it tasked David Maddocks with getting the brand back in the running. (He did, helping to increase sales sixfold.) And so two years ago, when the 87-year-old footwear brand Cole Haan needed a refresh, Maddocks wasn't surprised when his phone rang. After all, he was Converse's CMO when the brand was bought by Apax Partners, the same venture capital firm that bought Cole Haan from Nike. But while the two jobs have some similar elements, Cole Haan lacks a hipster, rock 'n' roll past. It does, however, have an American past, and Maddocks has pioneered a variety of ways to send that message—from launching a documentary called the American Dream Project to melding traditional looks with high-tech engineering in Cole Haan's ZeroGrand shoes. We caught up with footwear's turnaround man in his New York office.
As recently as 2012, Cole Haan had a "made by the streets of New York" positioning—very downtown, very club-oriented, very young. You seem to be up to something quite different now.
We want to make sure we're inviting everyone, young and old, to participate. We want to honor our heritage while moving into the future, and that doesn't exclude young, hip and edgy people—we have amazing products for them—but it also includes their boomer parents.
With some marketing help from Giant Spoon, you guys recently released the American Dream Project, a documentary that hits the road to discover if the American Dream still exists. How does that theme fit with an upscale footwear company?
The film was about how America is still a land of promise, and we share that belief. A brand needs to stand firmly for what it believes and put it out there. Brands have to engage in what I call media-ification.
Meaning … ?
It means we're all going to become media channels. And the sooner and faster we do that, the better. Look back to 1951, a simple little greeting card company in Kansas City decides to underwrite a program consistent with their values that today is a network. So we all have to be thinking that way.
Cole Haan got a lot of attention a few years ago with its funky LunarGrand shoes, and last year you launched ZeroGrand, which is even lighter and more flexible. I know they're comfy to wear, but what's the deal with a shoe that's an Oxford on top and a sneaker on the bottom, anyway?
The casualization of American fashion has also been combined with the desire to dress up a bit more. It's really the combination of craft and style with modern engineering—an interesting and wonderful dichotomy. The consumer wants Grandpa's stuff, but they don't want it served up the way Grandpa had it. They want a bit of dash and exuberance, and we have the opportunity to give it to them.
What's the hardest part of marketing a footwear brand?
The barriers to entry are low. Therefore, the trick is to really understand consumers and find an original voice.
Last month, Cole Haan rolled out a spring kids collection. Is the thinking there to broaden the revenue stream, or are you hoping to train a new generation of Cole Haan buyers?
Every generation has made its way to Cole Haan, and it shows up in people's lives at a critical occasion—when they get married or the first job. When a brand is invited into someone's life, it's an amazing inflection point. So it only makes sense if a young person is taking their first steps, we should be there.
Speaking of taking steps, do you test walk the product?
They're on my feet right now. I wear them every single day. And because we make such a variety, we've got everyone covered from work to weekend.
How many pairs of shoes do you have in your closet?
About 150 pairs.
Really? Converses included?
I've got some great classic Converses. For Product Red, we did a mud-cloth shoe that was terrific. Those are coveted.