Birkenstock: From Hippie to Hipster

NEW YORK If you want to bring the buzz back to a brand that dropped off the relevancy scale in the mid 1970s—its cool factor having peaked with freethinkers drenched in patchouli oil and shod in the orthopedic sandals—try to get a globally recognized supermodel to collaborate with you on designs and then wear them as she goes about her jet-set life.

Such was the case with Birkenstock, the German company started in 1897 by Konrad Birkenstock. The footwear, long a favorite both of people with achy feet and those clinging to their crunchy granola days (the latter most often found in California and Oregon), has spent most of its long life connecting with core groups of loyalists while remaining firmly off the radar of fashionistas.

Enter the tall and Teutonic Heidi Klum, who began working with the company in 2001 under the name “Birkenstock Styled by Heidi Klum,” and who has helped jazz up the company’s sandals, clogs, slippers and boots with Day-Glo colors and numerous fanciful designs. It’s no surprise that this summer, the sandal was seen on celebs including Naomi Watts, Julianne Moore and Cynthia Nixon.

The brand’s new popularity also has a lot to do with timing. Not only are the ’70s “back”—witness platform shoes, flared pants and crochet—but eco-conscious consumers have zeroed in on the company’s green nature (exemplified in its “Green Team”): Cork used in the sandals is a renewable resource and the entire line can be easily repaired.

According to Gene Kunde, president of Birkenstock USA, the brand has relied mostly on word of mouth. In 2006, however, Birkenstock USA hired San Francisco-based Duncan/Channon to up the ante with a print campaign, its first in approximately 10 years. The four ads, which ran this year (May through August), stressed the relaxing benefits of the shoe and ran in women’s magazines such as Allure and Glamour. Taglines include “Part sandal. Part day spa” and “Part sandal. Part personal trainer.”

“Everyone knows the brand, so what we tried to do was change how people look at it,” says Andy Berkenfield, Duncan/Channon’s GM. “We showed some of the more stylish and sexy products.”

“I think there’s been a real surge of interest lately for things from the ’70s,” Kunde adds. “For us, I think it has a lot to do with our authenticity. People who wear Birkenstocks know that they’re a classic product.”