VF’s Jim Corbett pulls a Web site apart and sews it together again. again. for interactive education.
Nearly three years ago, VF marketing executive Jim Corbett joined a small team of executives charged with finding new means for promoting the apparel company’s product lines, which include the Wrangler and Lee jeans brands. With the World Wide Web barely on the radar screen of any marketer at the time, Corbett came to the role with a title that was only minimally descriptive: manager of alternative media marketing. But Corbett quickly embraced the Web as a possible key to future VF marketing success. What followed over the next three years was a soap opera, literally and figuratively, as he and his co-workers discovered that being on the cutting edge is not for the faint-hearted.
Having spent 15 years in marketing at VF, the 40-year-old Corbett had performed roles ranging from licensing to product development. He had little technology experience, but plenty of interest in plumbing the depths of the new medium. “I saw what was going on [with the Web] and I wanted to play a role in determining what’s significant about it,” he says.
However, it’s a job that still doesn’t have a clear-cut goal. “No one knows how significant a distribution channel this will be for selling goods and services,” Corbett explains. “We’re doing this not for now but for just down the road.”
Which may be the only sort of philosophy that keeps interactive marketing professionals from running back to traditional media at the first sign of trouble. VF’s first effort on the Web, abandoned in April, was a year-old online soap opera called “Threads.” Featuring a cast of characters who were heavy users of VF products, the program aimed to create brand awareness as a subplot to the main story line. It became obvious that the site was off-strategy when Corbett began to get emails from visitors who were interested in dating the characters. The reverse marketing mechanism had done nothing to raise awareness for Wrangler jeans or Jantzen swimwear.
Corbett chalks up the experience to the tenor of those times; until fairly recently, overt commercialism on the Internet was verboten. “There was a misbelief that you couldn’t have a commercial environment on the Web,” he recalls.
Corbett came away from the venture feeling that he and VF had learned several important lessons. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. People end up in a paralyzed state because they’re looking for the perfect strategy,” he says. “Don’t look for the perfect strategy. A directionally correct strategy will help you along.” He even pooh-poohs the notion that Web strategies should require results, at least as defined in more traditional marketing disciplines. Web marketing, he believes, is about entering a long, evolutionary learning experience. “You enter a process using user information and your own information, and continually update your site,” he explains.
The lessons Corbett learned from “Threads” are now being put to use on the new VF site, a work in progress still located at He describes the current site as a “teaser gateway” to create a database, using the lure of the chance to win $1000 wardrobe prizes to those who register. Strangely, the “Threads” Web address may long outlive the online soap. VF has purchased five new potential Web addresses for the site, but traffic has remained consistent since the program was pulled. If that continues, Corbett may continue using the old “Threads” address.
Unlike its predecessor, the site is unapologetic about being a branding venue, using a VF corporate area as a gateway to individual brand sites. Each site oozes brand personality; Wrangler is heavy on allusions to the western life, and backpack maker JanSport invites visitors to take a quiz that includes questions about such youth-oriented bands as the Foo Fighters.
It’s certain Corbett would never have described “Threads” as he does the new site: an “aggregate brand venue” that works towards “the integration of the physical brand and the virtual brand.” He says, “Up until the Web came about, companies were looking to build value [for their brands] in the real world. Now you have the virtual world too.”
Despite all he’s learned, Corbett admits, his experience still leaves him dissatisfied with his Web knowledge: “I’m never impressed by what I know and always concerned with what I don’t know.” — John Spooner