Word On The Street

L ast August, an athletic shoemaker took a novel approach to commercial advertising, both online and on TV. Instead of the usual offerings of hot-shot sports prowess or polished beauty images, consumers saw a series of unrelated, unusual short films created by professional and amateur filmmakers who responded to an open call. The results ranged from a nursery rhyme-inspired story of a woman living in a cozy high-top house to a dance sequence featuring a pair of sneakers and a grimacing Mexican marionette tapping out a soft shoe atop piano keys.

The first wave of the Converse campaign included 11 of these mini films airing on cable channels, each illustrating in often- esoteric ways what the Converse shoe meant to these filmmakers. Those films, in addition to 10 others, were available for viewing online at conversegallery.com. Traffic to the online site was seeded by small print ads in alternative weeklies that mimicked club music listings. By the end of the first month, approximately 400,000 visitors went to the site to check out the films.

The spots, says Converse’s agency, are unlike anything it or any other agency would have come up with. “They have a real left-hand view of marketing,” says Mike Shine, creative director at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, the Sausalito, Calif-based agency that won the Converse account last April. “These are … not at all like people in advertising would try to create.”

And that was the point. “Using customers to make commercials for themselves, I think this is the wave of the future and we’ll probably be seeing it more and more now,” says Michael Tchong, founder of trend-spotting firm Trendscape, in San Francisco. “We’ll have to coin a new term for it.”

The Converse campaign has garnered some major traction with more than 3 million visitors to the Converse Gallery Web site and about 750 film submissions from 20 countries to date. So far, there have been three additional flights of the campaign in November, February and March; a total of 40 films have now aired on television, and an additional 41 have been posted only online. A print component in magazines was added in December, with further out-of-home print expansion launched in March that includes artist-created billboards and wild postings of movie posters based on the films. In addition, the campaign branched out into shoe design. The agency approached 30 artists to create their own Converse shoes. Six of these will be manufactured for the spring 2006 Converse line. The campaign won two silver Andy awards for an interactive campaign and for the Web site at the award show last month. It also won two pencil awards from the One Club last week: a silver for integrated media and a bronze for interactive.

But did it sell the sneakers? In a continuation of our recurring feature, we dissect this well regarded creative campaign to find out how well it’s working for the sales department.

Background

Converse has a strong brand history, favored as the sneaker of choice for a certain hipster audience. But Converse needed to parlay that popularity to engage the next generation of wearers in what is an increasingly crowded sneaker category.

The 97-year-old company from North Andover, Mass. was acquired by Beaverton, Ore-based Nike Inc. in 2003 as a side brand with retro fashion appeal. “When you’re the size of Nike, it can be hard to show strong year-over-year growth. You need to bring in additional brands (to maintain) your overall corporate growth strategy,” says Jamelah Leddy, a financial analyst with McAdams, Wright, Regan Inc., in Seattle, which follows Nike. “Converse, which has a historically strong brand appeal, fits in well with the whole Nike brand extension.” (Converse parent Nike has experimented with Web films in the past, most recently in 2004 with its Nikelab.com “Art of speed” effort. Although the 15 directors in this project were commissioned, they were free to make short films of their choice. The films existed only online.)

Nike made a shrewd move in acquiring Converse, agrees Marshal Cohen, an analyst with NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y., because of the growth of the leisure athletic shoe market. Only 33 percent of basketball shoes sold are actually used for basketball. “Converse knows basketball, but [that market] is also more leisure oriented. … That’s why Nike bought Converse. They don’t have to dilute the Nike brand known for its technology and performance.”

Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners was chosen as Converse’s agency last spring for the $15 million account. “This campaign was intended to engage our consumers on being part of the Converse family. It’s obviously built brand awareness and built brand equity,” says Erick Soderstrom, director of global brand development at Converse.

Converse is known in particular for three specific lines: the Chuck Taylor All Star-—of which 750 million pairs have been sold to date—Jack Purcell tennis shoe and One Star court shoe. The lines allow the company to cross between sports performance and cool casual footwear. It has tremendous brand recognition, plus an established fan base that goes back decades. But attempts to capitalize on its iconic status as the footwear favored by artists like Kurt Cobain, Joey Ramone and Jackson Pollock could easily backfire. “You have to understand the opportunity of this and the Converse customer. These are the last guys in the world who would ever want to see a Converse commercial,” says Shine. “The challenge was to think of a way not to turn off the people who had been wearing Chuck Taylors [the most popular Converse style] for years.”

Strategy

The solution was what Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners creative director John Butler calls “brand democracy.” Recognizing that consumers really “own” the Converse brand, the agency handed consumers the creative rein. Participants received minimal instruction in one basic statement: Converse stands for originality, creativity and self expression, so make a film that does the same.

As Shine explains it, Converse has two types of customers: those who wear the shoes as a fashion statement and those who have a deeper understanding of the brand and what it stands for. This strategy was based on “sell(ing) to the people who think they look great while at the same time building the base of people who understand what they stand for, and let them recruit others,” Shine says.

Going with an online and TV combination was important. “The target audience is so young and hip, they have to look at ways to get these kids who are not driven solely by TV commercials that get Tivo’d out,” says John Horan, president and analyst at Sporting Goods Intelligence of Glen Mills, Pa. Plus, the Web strategy has allowed twice as many films to be circulated than if it were strictly broadcast.

Creative

Before launching the Converse Gallery Web site in August, the agency reached out to creative friends and filmmakers to get the ball rolling on submissions, and also solicited short films from students at the Miami Ad School. About 250 arrived, with the agency and client eventually whittling the number down to the 21 that were to air on TV or online at launch. Offensive ads were nixed, but quirky and abstruse were apparently OK. Thus, the resulting films include Look Sharp, Look Shark from Alexandre Athane of Paris, whose animated swimmer turns into a shark and then a shoe; and New Yorker Christopher Davis’ Eat & Run, in which Davis appears to be eating his shoe, yet with each bite, more of the shoe appears.

Interestingly, the filmmakers were not required to feature Converse shoes; but most of them did. “I’m not sure they would necessarily do that with other products,” says Butler. “I think Converse is the one product that people don’t mind showing because they have an emotional attachment to the brand.” After the films are submitted, the agency adds a six-second animated tagline featuring the Converse star logo and the filmmakers’ credit.

The broadcast films appeared on MTV, ESPN, BET, Cartoon Network, Spike, Comedy Central, TNT and ABC. The filmmakers received $10,000 if their films were chosen for broadcast; the Web-only films received a smaller, undisclosed amount. In addition to streaming the films, the online gallery encourages visitors to submit their own homemade films and contains legal release forms for actors and downloadable music tracks for accompaniment, which now number 181 separate tracks. The artists could also create original music for the films, but had to submit release forms for that as well. Such organic growth had another side effect—giving Converse a fast track to the latest trends in pop culture. For example, Judy Starkman’s Klownen film captures a nascent Hip Hop trend known as crumping or clowning. “This is pop culture created by the people so it’s still current and hip,” says Butler. “If this was being down by a big marketer, the time it would take to carry this pop culture phenomenon down to advertising would be way too long.”

The agency has also reached out to other professionals. Agency producer Francesca Prada solicited films from new directors while attending last summer’s Venice Film Festival. The rewards include the lyrically beautiful, Pantsula, named after a dance from Capetown, South Africa, directed by Carey Lagoe.

Following the films, print ads began running in December in magazines such as Paper, The Fader, Giant Robot, Juxtapoz Black Book and Mass Appeal. Like the TV, the print sought out artists and designers whose work targets specific demographics, such as 20-something urban hipsters, teen girls and adrenaline sports junkies.

The campaign progressed with an out-of-home component that launched in March with wild postings of “cinema ads,” identifying individual films in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami. In addition, 14 artists from these five cities created billboards to promote Converse gallery—each given free rein to interpret the brand and message as they saw fit, with work ranging from anime to collages. The billboards are geographically focused, so each artist’s work appears only in the city where he or she is from. “Taking a regional approach to expanding a fashion trend gives a grassroots feel,” says Horan.

A similar phase of the campaign is expected to be timed with the back-to-school retail season. Ultimately, Converse would like to extend the campaign to encompass other forms of creativity such as music and spoken word. “We are giving people a chance to express themselves,” says Soderstrom.

Results

Converse won’t comment about specific sales data. “Converse is not about transactions. It’s about building a relationship with these people,” Soderstrom says. In fact, he says the company doesn’t view this as an “ad campaign. It’s a statement of how we feel about who the Converse brand belongs to.”

Nevertheless, the campaign is moving the dial. “Quantitatively, we have seen a positive uptick in sales driven by the campaign,” Soderstrom says. Plus, “there is clear turnaround from Converse Gallery to converse.com with people registering on converse.com to be part of the Converse community. This thing is hitting a nerve.”

Qualitatively, Soderstrom says a buzz has been built around the brand, exemplified, among other reasons, by the tremendous response from foreign filmmakers despite no advertising outside the U.S. He also referenced blog mentions about the Converse Gallery creativity. “The filmmakers themselves are spreading it via word of mouth. … We’re seeing repeat visits to see the latest films. It’s all something we’re pretty proud of.”

That word of mouth is incredibly valuable, adds NPD analyst Cohen. “It’s the second biggest influence in fashion—magazines being the first.”

Overall, the Converse Gallery is a smart move for its audience and smacks of self-expression and authenticity, Cohen says. “This youth market is a generation that can smell a fraud. If you’re not real about being a cool brand, they are going to smell it and run away faster than they got to it.”

Nike Inc. does not break out specific sales by brand; however, financial filings show the company’s “other” brands, which include Converse, Nike Golf, Hurley, Bauer Nike Hockey, Exeter and Cole Haan, posted a 12 percent quarterly increase in revenues in the quarter that ended last November, and 20 percent increase for the quarter that ended last February. Nike’s net income is up 25 percent, partly as a result of Converse’s healthy sales performance, according to the agency.

Sporting Goods Intelligence’s Horan, who provides annual estimates of athletic shoe sales, reported that Converse’s 2004 U.S. footwear sales climbed to $305 million, an increase of 24.5 percent over 2003, making it the third largest percentage increase among the major athletic shoe makers last year. The overall sneaker space grew 8.4 percent last year—its highest level since 1997. However, Nike didn’t grow as much as the overall market, Horan explained. Meanwhile, Converse’s holiday 2004 sales alone were up 8 percent over the same period a year earlier, according to sources.

“In my opinion, this campaign has done a very good job for Converse in keeping it authentic, rather than trying to force the commercial aspect. This has really gone after the core values associated with the Converse brand in an authentic way. It creates excitement and that bodes well for future sales,” says Leddy, the financial analyst.

Other results on traffic to the Converse Gallery site show it has had 3.1 million visitors since its inception. The average time being spent on the site is 7 minutes, meaning users could be watching more than a dozen of the films in one sitting. Traffic to the corporate site, Converse.com, has increased 140 percent since the campaign began and 200 percent in fourth quarter 2004, compared to the same period in 2003. Anecdotally, the campaign has driven 30 percent increases in online shoe sales—one feature of the film gallery is the opportunity to directly buy the same style as featured in a film.

“In the end, the ultimate goal of any campaign is to sell that company’s product. We’d be kidding ourselves to think otherwise,” says Butler. “So I believe that between consumers linking different products to different films and then by linking those films in the Converse gallery back to the commerce site, our campaign fulfilled that objective.”

Trendscape’s Tchong offers another factor contributing to the results: “Even those 750 filmmakers just buying another pair of shoes for filming had to help sales. … It couldn’t not help sell shoes.”