Geoff Cottrill, whose name is synonymous to many with digital marketing, says he draws much of his inspiration from a decidedly pre-Internet document: The 1913 Converse Catalog.
One passage in particular has resonated: "Our company was organized in 1908 fully believing that there was an earnest demand from the retail shoe dealer for a rubber shoe company that would be independent enough not to follow every other company in everything they do."
It's safe to say Cottrill has followed that directive. With a small budget, he resuscitated Converse by focusing -- quirkily and imaginatively -- on digital and social media. Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsONESource, credits Converse for being "one of the first [shoe brands] to exploit social media and the Web, talking directly to the end consumer and end running conventional retail. Converse has really embraced the alt/indie lifestyle and remained true to that consumer."
The numbers bear that out. The brand has 8.8 million fans on its two Facebook pages, which is about four times more than Converse owner Nike has. And those fans don't just "like" Converse, they buy them. Last year, Converse posted more than $2 billion in sales, a 26 percent jump over its 2008 sales.
That's quite a change from previous years. Back in 1966, Converse -- best known for its iconic Chuck Taylor shoe -- controlled 80 percent of the U.S. sneaker market. But thanks to stiff competition, a string of owners through the '80s and '90s, and other factors, that number sank to a piddling 2.3 percent in 1998. By 2003, Converse was perceived as a has-been brand and Nike bought it for a scant $305 million.
This was the situation Cottrill walked into when he took over as CMO in 2007.
But Cottrill had a plan: His first objective was to build a leadership team that would turn the focus back to the brand's heritage and loyal fans. Hence, a campaign from Anomaly in early 2008 that showed icons like Hunter S. Thompson and Sid Vicious sporting Converses. But much of Cottrill's success has been via digital media. Before Cottrill came on board, Converse's Web site was a largely informative one that was geared towards retailers. Now, it boasts a huge amount of content, almost all created by Converse consumers. Cottrill refers to the online transformation as "a dramatic shift towards being consumer-friendly." That shift has turned the brand into a curator of sorts for new music, art and fun.
Take, for example, a recent musical collaboration sponsored by Converse. The effort put Kid Cudi, Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend and Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast together in the studio to write a song. The resulting track, "All Summer," was downloaded more than 66,000 times in the first 24 hours of its July 14 release and contributed to a 400 percent increase in traffic on a Converse blog that week. Cottrill estimates it brought in an estimated unpaid media value of $6.5 million from mentions.
"Geoff deserves a lot of credit for creating incredible inroads in the way a brand engages music," says Jon Cohen, co-CEO of Cornerstone Promotions, who has worked with Cottrill for more than 10 years. "Most brands engage in licensing, but Converse has become a pioneer. They've become a real distribution platform for musicians to get their music out there, and it's been a real boon to the Converse consumer."
In addition to music, Converse has also supported the arts. The recent Jack Purcell "Smile" campaign -- named for the designer of a popular Converse shoe -- highlighted five young artists by hiring Todd Selby to take their portrait in their creative spaces. The print campaign has contributed to triple-digit growth at key retailers for Jack Purcell over last year, and a lot of attention for the young artists' projects.
Converse's take on sports, meanwhile, is in-line with the 1913 directive. While other brands focus on performing like an elite, Converse celebrates the joy of playing.
For instance, the famous Chuck Taylor Basketball Clinic has been replaced with Open Gym, a program that, instead of teaching kids how to play, simply gives them a safe place to play (and test the shoes). Converse's "just play" ethos has also been evident in another project, Band of Ballers, a simple three-on-three basketball tournament comprised of upcoming artists like Of Montreal and Black Lips. The game is closed to the public, but streamed over a myriad of media outlets including MTV. "We're the oldest basketball brand there is. We come from basketball. We celebrate the culture of basketball," says Cottrill. "It's more about the joy of playing the game than it is about playing at the elite level."
Ironically, Cottrill now finds himself playing at such a level, but true to form, he doesn't see himself as a superstar, but more of a prototypical Converse consumer. In fact, a lifelong fan, when Cottrill, then vp, global product and marketing at Starbucks Entertainment, got the call for Converse's job offer, he was, naturally enough, wearing a beat-up old pair of Chucks.
In a demonstration of Geoff Cottrill's social media prowess, he got 16,747 votes on Brandweek.com's People's Choice Awards, besting all other contenders. Much of Cottrill's outreach was via his Facebook page, which boasts 2,329 friends, and the page for his former fraternity, Sigma Chi. Cottrill doesn't appear to have an active Twitter account, and told Brandweek back in February that "Twitter is a little bit overrated. There will be a new media toy to replace it in a year or two."
Geoff Cottrill photographed by Allison Cottrill