Try the following pop quiz: What happens when you take a line of downscale but sturdily constructed outdoor boots, upgrade the image by spending heavily to create a brand name that reeks of affluence, quality and prestige, remove your product from surplus outlets and instead open chic boutiques on Madison Avenue?
If your answer is that the product becomes a hit among yuppies, then you're right. Unless, of course, the company in question is Timberland. In that case, the correct answer is that the product becomes a hit among yuppies, the stock becomes a hit on Wall Street--and the boots and Timberland logo become popular among inner-city black youth, a group the company says it doesn't target at all.
In fact, the Hampton, N.H.based manufacturer of rugged boots and apparel has such a strong following in the urban black market that it now finds itself trying to police the unofficial use of its name and logo on everything from baseball caps to kids' jackets.
In part, this unintended customer base has helped propel Timberland sales and its stock price to record highs. "I really believe it can become the next Nike," says Don Maurer, senior vp/director of account services at Mullen Advertising, Timberland's agency. "It's that kind of brand name."
Nike, of course, enjoys tremendous sales to black kids, and it cultivates that audience by using icons like Michael Jordan and street-wise ads. Timberland makes no such marketing effort. "It's definitely something that has taken on a life of its own," says Ken Freitas, vp/marketing at Timberland. "We have always had a following in the inner city. This phase of hip-hop has reached the crossover point, where it's spreading outside the inner city. That is causing the phenomenon to get bigger."
Wouldn't it therefore make sense to capitalize on that popularity by ratcheting up marketing programs and producing ads for that audience? "It's never been something that we have pursued," says Freitas. "It's not our core business. It's not sustainable. It's not something to bet the ranch on."
In fact, Timberland took steps a few years ago to limit supply to certain retailers whose clientele was more in tune with the image the company wanted to project. Out went Army & Navy surplus stores, run-of-the-mill sporting goods chains and downmarket shoe retailers. In came clothing boutiques and stores that sold top-quality athletic shoes. The result: an upscale image and a premium price supported by strong brand advertising from Mullen.
Still, having successfully moved away from its working-class roots as a durable all-weather boot from New Hampshire, Timberland has somehow developed an enormous inner-city following, not only in footwear, but in apparel. One theory behind "Timberland chic" is that filmmaker Spike Lee's fondness for the brand has given it street credibility. Although he acknowledges Lee's interest in Timberland products, Freitas prefers to point to what the brand stands for.
"We are a legitimate brand," he says. "That's why we're popular. Lots of people pursue that look, but Timberland has always been there. The winds of fashion will rise and fall, but we will always be there. This company stands for some values that resonate with people. It's not strictly a fashion look; it's what the brand stands for."
The idea of an upscale outdoorsman's shoe reaching a market some 180 degrees removed from its target is not as strange as it sounds. "It doesn't shock me," says Doug Alligood, vp/director of special markets at BBDO/N.Y. "Blacks tend to spend more on shoes than whites." Years ago, when he was at an all-black high school in St. Louis, the most popular shoe model was Stacy Adams, whose target market, at least according to the advertising, was rich, elderly white men. "You couldn't graduate from our high school unless you had Stacy's," Alligood says, "and they didn't spend one-tenth of one percent advertising to blacks." Even today, he explains, when he walks into a shoe store, he is greeted as a discerning consumer, treatment he's not likely to get at a car dealership. As for Timberland's professed ignorance of why its products took off among blacks, Alligood says that's not unusual. "There are companies that have no idea they have a product that has a following among blacks," he says.
While he welcomes the sales, what bothers Freitas about the inner-city popularity of his brand name is the big knock-off business it inspires. "We take counterfeiting seriously," he says. "Those people are trading on our logo. Those people are messing with our brand."
And once a brand name becomes too big and over-exposed, it tends to lose its "in" mystique and its hip status. No wonder Timberland treads lightly.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)