Converse Turns Up the Noise

“My Drive Thru” is a Converse-commissioned music track written and performed by a disparate trio of artists.

“Celebrate” and “provoke.” Those are the words that Geoff Cottrill, CMO of Converse, uses to describe the advertising strategy of the North Andover, Mass.-based shoemaker. “Our whole mission is to inspire originality and be an advocate and catalyst for creativity,” he said.

The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a global campaign, “Connectivity,” that taps the cultural heritage of the brand. Included is what Cottrill hopes will become a summer hit: “My Drive Thru,” written and performed by a disparate trio of artists: Pharrell Williams, who produced the song; up-and-coming R&B artist Santogold; and Julian Casablancas, lead singer of The Strokes.

In June, the four-minute song was released to consumers as a free download on the Converse Web site as well as distributed to radio stations. Part of a promotion called “Three Artists. One Song,” the track has had daily downloads in the thousands, according to Converse, received favorable reviews from music critics and fans, and most importantly, created buzz for the brand. It’s the kind of publicity Converse hopes will only get louder as the song’s two-and-a-half-minute music video–which broke online on MySpace and MTV late last week–makes its debut today as 30- and 60-second TV and cinema commercials. (As of press time, the video had received more than 96,000 views on MySpace and had an 88% rating. Next week the company also plans a YouTube home page takeover.)

“If you Google search for the track, you’ll see hundreds of sites have written about it and every single one mentions Converse,” said Ian Toombs, senior creative for design at Anomaly, New York, one of the campaign’s architects. “The name is out there.”

Converse is the latest in a growing list of companies turning to music to amplify their marketing messages. And Williams and the gang are the latest artists, including both established and up-and-coming, who are finding advertising a healthier source of promotional funding than a traditional record label. “With the music business really in a state of change, brands represent a great partner in terms of marketing,” said Jon Cohen, co-chief executive officer at Cornerstone Promotion. Cornerstone is the New York firm that last year helped Nike and Wieden + Kennedy produce the first Grammy-nominated brand-sponsored track with Kanye West for the Air Force 1 shoe.

“Brands enable good music to really reach their target audience,” said Cohen. “As record sales and revenue sources for artists decline, relationships with brands help fill that void. And there’s a comfort level that artists can . . . control the way their music is positioned. It also gives them freedom to do things outside of what they normally do. Most importantly, it’s a great way for artists to get their image out. There’s no way a record company can commit to buying the level of media that a brand like Converse could.”

Yet producing a piece of brand-sponsored content can present a challenge: How to balance the marketing and artistic objectives.

“Where a lot of these projects go wrong is that some brands can be so controlling,” said Cohen. In the case of Converse, however, he said the artists were given plenty of room to roam.

“The brief was make some music and have fun,” said Converse’s Cottrill. “The idea of giving them a platform was to give them complete creative freedom. There were no request to make it about our shoes, our brand or anything. We said make something interesting and cool, and they did.”

When the song was first released, The Times of London called it “a three-headed Frankenstein’s monster of coolness.” Rolling Stone’s current issue gives the release a four-star review.