Converse Turns Up the Noise

“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 says.

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,” a Converse-commissioned music track 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 percent 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,” says Ian Toombs, senior creative/design at New York-based Anomaly, 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,” says 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,” says 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,” notes Cohen. In the case of Converse, however, he says, the artists were given plenty of room to roam.

“The brief was make some music and have fun,” says Converse’s Cottrill. “The idea of giving them a platform was to give them complete creative freedom. There was 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.

Converse hopes the song and its music video/commercial extensions will add another level of energy and dimension to the global “Connectivity” campaign. Until this summer, the campaign, which debuted in February, was limited to print and outdoor with images of a broad range of iconic pop figures throughout history — from James Dean and Hunter S. Thompson to Kurt Cobain and Common — wearing the Chuck Taylor sneakers. The campaign, running in 75 markets worldwide, has been customized for regional markets with local stars such as Nina Hagen in Germany and Ian Curtis in the U.K.

“It’s a simple graphic; everything is connected through the Chuck,” says Mike Byrne, executive creative director at Anomaly. “We’re celebrating 100 years of Converse and the people who disturbed the status quo; they’re all connected via the Chuck Taylor. It gets back to the idea that every artist is connected to everyone else.”

The visuals are modeled after paper-doll chains, only in the Converse work, people are connected by their sneakers.

For the second leg of the effort, says Toombs, “we wanted to take that story and make it deeper, build some content around it and really make something original with the people we were putting in [the campaign]. We wanted to take three artists that normally wouldn’t work together and connect them through Converse.”

Williams was the first to sign up for recording. He wrote the song with Casablancas and Santogold from their individual locales in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

“It had to have a strong chorus and a summer feel,” says Cornerstone’s Cohen. “It had to live as a song that people want to hear, download, play on the radio.”

The song also needed to accommodate a music video that would be cut to varying lengths for distribution as a commercial. “These guys gave it such a great hook,” Cohen adds, which allowed it to fit the parameters of a variety of marketing content.

The music video, directed by Psyop’s Marie Hyon and Marco Spier, continues the black-and-white paper-doll theme in a 3-D environment. The artists were filmed on a soundstage using three HD cameras and then animated using CGI. The production took about four months to complete as well as the use of nearly 10,000 paper cutouts of the artists.

“There’s not one single cut in the spot,” says Hyon.

“It’s two-and-a-half minutes of one-camera movement,” adds Spier. “We wanted this aspect of connectivity in all [parts] of the video including the camera movement.”

“We’re making a Converse ad here, we’re not lying about what it is,” says Andrew Loevenguth, head of broadcast, Anomaly. “Where they let us run it as a music video, we’ll run it as a music video. Where they’ll let us run it as content that has Converse attached to it, we’ll run it that way. It’ll see the light of day both with and without a logo.”

The Anomaly team says the campaign — which on the Converse site allows users to sample the music of many of the artists who appear in the campaign (though the only Converse track is “My Drive Thru”) — has led many musicians, established and unknown, to knock on its doors to participate in “Connectivity.”

Are there more Converse custom tracks to come? Cottrill would only say that “music discovery is a very important piece of who we are. And the support of up-and-coming artists is important. We have been part of the past, we’re actively participating in the present and we certainly want to be part of the future. Over the next year, you’re going to see us do some more interesting things in the world of music. … It’s a huge part of our brand and who we are.”