Chuck’s Big Comeback

The Chuck Taylor high-top shows how a brand can rise from the dead

According to the folks at Gallup, 20 percent of Americans believe in reincarnation. There’s no telling what portion of the sample works in marketing, but for those people, the belief rate should be higher. After all, we have at least one indisputable case of a brand living, dying and coming back as something entirely different: the Converse Chuck Taylor high-top. Brand reincarnation? “It’s brand morphing,” said Hayes Roth, CMO for global brand consultancy Landor Associates. “It often happens without any intended control. It’s usually how [consumers] interpret a brand and make it their own—and it’s a really amazing story here.”

Indeed, it is. The story starts in 1917 when the Converse Rubber Corp. began to market the world’s first mass-produced basketball shoe. To goose sales, the company signed up Charles Hollis (“Chuck”) Taylor, who’d played for the Columbus Commercials and was, by the standards of the day, a basketball “star.” Taylor hit the road with the shoe, promoting it as part of the basketball clinics he ran at high schools across the country. Converse put his name on the canvas in 1932—probably the first celebrity co-branded endorsement on record—and, in 1947, began promoting a new version that Taylor himself had invented: the high-top. The advertisement at right introduced the shoe to America.

The Chuck Taylor All Star came in a choice of three colors. It let you “step out onto the court with confidence.” And it was advertised as no more or less than what it was: a basketball shoe. Never mind that the sorry-ass thing was just a piece of canvas glued to a rubber slab with no arch support to speak of—it was all there was. And it was cheap. Converse would make 750 million of them, enjoying 80 percent market share.

That was until the 1970s when the coming of brands like Adidas, Nike and Puma promised consumers better shoes, cooler styles and endorsements from NBA stars who, unlike poor old Chuck, really were household names by that time. Come 1998, Converse’s market share fell to 2.3 percent; three years later, the only court that saw Converse sneakers in action was the bankruptcy kind.

Yet even as athletes had abandoned the shoe, a who’s who of cultural iconoclasts had been simultaneously embracing it. They included Hunter S. Thompson, The Sharks of West Side Story and especially rockers: the Beach Boys, Sid Vicious and most notably the Ramones, for whom Chuck Taylors defined the onstage uniform. Rock ‘n’ roll would be the seeds to Converse’s rebirth—the essential first ingredient, Roth said, without which even the best marketing would probably have done little. “You can’t just make something cool,” he said. “You can pay off a thousand celebrities, but the thing needs to have its own momentum.”

Converse had it. Yet incredibly, it would take the brand (which Nike purchased in 2003 for $305 million) until 2007 to actually harness all of this cultural iconography in its advertising. But once it did, the reincarnation was complete. Chuck Taylors (just “Chucks” to the initiated) had returned as the rocker’s de rigueur footwear. The ad on the opposite page ran in Rolling Stone last summer, showing Turbo Fruits guitarist Jonas Stein doing a flying split in his Chucks—or, presumably, just “chucking” it. “It’s unusual that a brand can pull this off,” Roth said. “The product now has nothing to do with what it was conceived to be—and nobody knows anything about Chuck Taylor.”

Alas, that is true. When someone asked Tommy Ramone about the name on his sneakers, the punk drummer just shrugged: “He was maybe a basketball coach or something. I don’t know. He made cheap shoes.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.