An Ingredient Brand is exactly what the name implies: an ingredient or component of a product that has its own brand identity. In the light of the success stories of Intel, GoreTex, Teflon, Dolby and TetraPak one can anticipate that component suppliers will gradually use Ingredient Branding strategies in the future.
– By Abhimanyu Mathur, Executive Vice President, Lowe Lintas
This article is like a sequel to a super hero movie. Second in series on branding and so is connected to the article which was carried in the July issue – ‘Branding opportunities in the Footwear Industry’. Just like it is good but not necessary to have seen the first movie to understand the second; it would be good but, not necessary, to have read the first article in order to understand this one.
As a marketer, my perspective often turns to how we can use these new technologies and trends to better communicate and connect with our audiences. I explored some opportunities like water proof but breathable uppers, in-soles and laces to build brands in India which are all highly relevant needs in India. Given the monsoon we have, water-proof, but breathable, uppers are quite a need. Currently, In-soles which are essentially medically prescribed, address a huge problem as many people either suffer from flat feet, high arches or where high heels, all of which cause severe pain in the feet and hence in-soles can make a big difference. And lastly, innovative stretchable laces that give you the freedom from tying your shoe laces, will be welcomed in any country and not just for kids below the age of seven. All this is now possible, given that digital can play a bigger role in driving awareness, and it can allow a brand to enter and grow, increasing distribution slowly.
All three opportunities mentioned are components of shoes. And it is about time that components took the lead in India.
Now to the sequel
Footwear brands are extremely innovative when it comes to their marketing plans. They need to be in news, need to be relevant, are always innovating and partnering to that end.They are continuously creatinga buzz and then communicating it.
In today’s competitive marketplace these are big moves that all brands are making all over the world including India. It is what is keeping them relevant. But because everyone is doing it, there is also sea of sameness.This article explores a fresh approach to branding in India, but before we do that let’s look at what those big bold moves are.
Technological improvements in product
Brands are always making technological improvements or tweaks to their products and talking about it through their campaigns. New sole technologies that are ultra-flexible or extra support are needed in the arch of the foot or uppers that feel like socks. And all these innovations have been communicated through dazzling campaigns, worldwide including India.
Comfort has been a big play for footwear and accessories. People are choosing comfort, but without compromising on fashion and style and the brands have recognized and catered to this need. People don’t want to compromise on comfort, even when they are wearing boots or formal shoes. This trend can also be seen in women’s shoes, through sneakers, combat boots and mules. Folks over 25 carry backpacks to work, travel or just about any time. India is experiencing this move towards comfort as well, and brands are obliging with rapid launches and communicating strongly too.
This trend of comfort has led to another space called Athleisure that has grown in the last two years. Fun fact: this trend started off largely because people started posting on social media during or after their workout and that led to people wearing those clothes beyond the gym as well.
Adidas has been the biggest gainer of this trend. And so have many other brands.They have tied up with designers and artists to provide interesting clothing to cater to this need. Athleisure has caught on in our west-observing metro folk. Brands are innovating at a furious pace and communicating new styles.
By now, every company in the world has realized the awesome power of Retro designs. Retro’s a big trend around the world and this is something not restricted to footwear alone, but can be seen with the comeback of Fujifilm and Polaroid Instant cameras, the Nintendo Gameboy and others. But for the purposes of this article, let’s look at the footwear category, because this trend is huge and has been going on for a few years.
Nike Jordan, Fila, Nike Cortez, Adidas Originals are all examples of brands bringing their old shoes back. Bringing back the shoes is not so easy since technologies and materials have improved and so have expectations. They have re-engineered the shoes using new technologies and materials but making them true to the original concept and look.
Brands like Converse and Vans that inherently have a retro style have also made a comeback. So this has been a huge space for innovation and communication for the industry.
Some hidden moves that have potential for India
Now that we are done with the big moves that are happening across brands and the globe, let’s look at a few interesting moves that are a fresh approach for India.
These moves allow brands in India to create a distinct brand story for itself. And they all use components of shoes. Not the whole shoe itself, but a key part that can be called out and be used as an ingredient in your bigger brand story. Before I delve into my examples, thought I would quickly explain what an ingredient brand is.
Ingredient Brand and its benefits
It is the branding of a component or an element that goes into making the finished product. The finished product then uses this ingredient brand to sell the finished product. Ingredient branding does one of the most important things any manufacturer desires; it gets them a premium. And that is possible, because the ‘ingredient’ has invested behind building a brand. It talks to the end-user within the earshot of their customers. This creates ‘PULL’ for finished products that use the ingredient brand and hence allows the finished product to charge a premium too, eventually leading to an overall improvement of quality of product all around, and thus benefiting the entire industry.
VIBRAM – SOLE MAKERS
One standout brand that is 81 years old and still relevant is Vibram. They are expert shoe sole makers. And while they have come out with their own shoes over the years, they provide outer and mid-sole solutions to other brands.
To understand this brand a bit you have to go back to its origin. It is a fascinating story. So fascinating that a movie could be made out of it.
In 1935, Vitale Bramani was on a mountaineering expedition in the Italian Alps. Six of his friends lost their lives in an accident. Vitale was convinced that the reason was poor leather shoes that they were using. They did not have the traction needed and were just too slippery. So Vitale created and patented the first rubber sole shoes called Carrarmato, used from the same technology of Pirelli tyres. He thought that if tyres can have traction in adverse conditions, why not take this technology to shoes. And so in 1937, Vibram was born.
Vibram’s legacy was conceived in mountaineering and that is where it remained. In 1954, it put its shoes to a torture test. An Italian team, wearing Vibram sole shoes, scaled K2, the second highest mountain in the world. The best test of its technology was on display, but more than that, surely was highly satisfying for Vitale to have successfully innovated a safe mountaineering shoe.
Back to recent times, Vibram stays with its core strength – mountaineering related sports and activities, for which it innovates on shoes and promotes and supports activities through sponsorship.
When New Balance wanted to make a trail running shoe that could withstand the rugged terrain, it turned to Vibram. Vibram’s tough durable sole was the perfect choice for New Balance. The sole has a plate inserted between the midsole and the outsole that minimizes pressure and disperses shock. This outsole is called Vibram Megagrip. It is not only tough but has traction as well. So the shoe is stable over uneven surfaces and sticky when the path gets slick.
Recent partnership was with Giro, a bicycle equipment brand that makes helmets, shoes, gloves and apparel. When they wanted to make a mountain biking shoe, they asked Vibram to develop and provide the sole for the shoe. Bicycle shoes need a stiffness. So that when pressure is applied to move the cycle, all the pressure is transferred to the pedal. But also the sole should not be slippery. It needs to be sticky so no energy gets wasted.
Scarpa, a brand that makes shoes for skiing, rock climbing and mountaineering turned to Vibram when it was making its rock climbing shoe The Maestro Mid Eco. This shoe soft, as it needs to, fits into cracks and wedges. But still needs to be tough enough to provide support. Vibram provides a 4 mm tough, but flexible sole.
Takeaway: There are more such partnerships. But as you can see, Vibram does not just supply soles to brands. It partners with them to tailor-make technologies for them. And when things need improvements, then Vibram betters and tweaks technologies to deliver the right compound needed. The partnership is so deep that even when there is a problem that needs fixing, the shoe company does not turn to someone else or substitute Vibram, they ask Vibram to fix the problem.
Also Vibram has been consistent in building a brand over the years. The end-user knows the brand well; that Vibram makes specialized soles or shoes for different mountain activities. Brand building efforts have ensured that Vibram does not get substituted. The shoe brand benefits by affixing the Vibram brand on every shoe.
Sponsorship of MTB Events
A downhill marathon Mountain Bike (MTB) race like the Megavalanche takes place in the French Alps every year. Vibramis an event sponsor. It allows them to engage with enthusiasts and for enthusiasts to engage with them.It is a good place to recruit people to test their products. Most importantly it keeps the credentials of Vibram high, keeping them seen in the right circles.
Activation: Vibram does very interesting activations. I am highlighting two. The first showcases its reason for existence, and the second showcases product functionality.
Sole Factor Tour: Vibram has fitted out a van with equipment and hired cobblers. The vans go around the country to refit shoes with new soles. These days shoes are discarded when the sole gets worn out. But that is a waste, because the upper material may still be good. With a refitted sole, that shoe can be given a new lease of life.
It also importantly continues the dying art of the shoe cobbler and shoe repair to the next generation. It is eco-friendly to not keep throwing shoes out. It teaches kids some value in the art of recycling, especially in a generation of use and throw.
The Vibram Sole Factor RV
For Vibram, this activation is its whole reason for existence. It brings focus to the sole of the shoe. How important it is in the shoe? Let people know what Vibram does. And hence it is treated as an on-going activation. It started in 2015 and continues this year as well. Any good activation does not just build awareness and credentials with the people that witness the activity, but also with the people that read or see the unique activity through PR.
Active Grip Demo Activation: People slip a lot. 25,000 people on average slip a day in the US. This happens mostly on slippery surfaces and in winter time most surfaces become slippery, which multiplies falls and injuries.
Vibram has a sole technology that prevents you from slipping on wet ice. And it showcases this through a fascinating demonstration. They take not only a slippery surface, but one that is inclined, which makes it much tougher to walk on in regular shoes.
You can see people wearing one regular shoe and one Vibram-soled shoe on the other. The difference is there for people to see.
Takeaway: Activations can be a great tool in your marketing armour. A well thought through activation can give you great mileage as a brand. When an activation uses topicality like the Sole Tour does by trying to save the dying art of the shoe cobbler and being an eco-friendly solution, it can get significant coverage through PR. They also make great product demonstrations and these can be edited into great clips for digital or even TV.
Why the Vibram case?
Yes, this brand is focusing on sports and activities related to the mountains which is a niche here in India. But look at the strategy behind that. They found themselves a highly relevant niche and have become the master in that space. Because they built a brand with the end-user within the earshot of their customers (shoe manufacturers), they cannot be substituted. Shoe brands tie up with them to give themselves credibility of being an authentic solution.
What is relevant here in India? What are the unmet needs? What are the coming trends that will be game changers? You need to find those relevant needs that are going to be big and provide solutions. And guess what you don’t need to be a shoe brand. You can be a component of a shoe and still do it, just like Vibram.
A zip company that has largely played in the apparel industry. But they have made some moves in the footwear industry too. Zips on shoes? Yes. It is not just being used for its functionality, but is a design statement too. Let’s look at two such examples.
Nike X Acronym
This is a sports shoe designed by Errolson Hugh for Nike. It was a co-branded launch with the designer’s label ACRONYM. This was the redesigning of the Lunar Force 1 shoe. And Hugh designed the shoe with a big bold YKK zip on the shoe as an alternative way to fasten the shoes. His view was to not be shy about the zip and conceal it. But to keep it big and bold as a design statement. And for a shoe brand to do this, they chose the best quality zip brand they know, YKK.
Adidas Yeezy Boost
Yeezy is a brand owned by Kanye West. He had a tie up with Nike earlier, which commenced in 2009 and went on till 2014. The Adidas Yeezy was launched in 2015 and the very first shoe had a PR disaster. The shoe came with a zip and it was breaking. Having given up the Nike tie up and to have this fiasco could not have been good for Kanye West.
But Adidas recalled all the shoes that had this problem, provided a full refund and fixed the problem with the launch of the season 2 of the Adidas Yeezy 750 Brown. The fix was a YKK zip. A more durable and quality product.
What makes YKK so special?
This is a company that is present in 71 countries. While they have been global, they have always encouraged their management teams to immerse themselves in local society. So they have always had a local understanding of the market. But the global scale has allowed them to tie up with other global brands and provide the same high quality zip across the world.
They have always believed in working closely with customers, and have believed co-branding is the way forward for them. It is what sets them apart from competition. Working closely with the customer would help the customer’s brand. It would enhance its value to the end-user, and would help increase demand for the brand with the end-user because it made a financial contribution to its customer. In short, they have built their brand through co-branding with the end-user. The End-user knows and respects the brand. They know that YKK makes high quality zips.
It also works to identify trends and meet customer’s demand quickly through innovations, design and aesthetics. R&D is an important aspectfor the company.
This investing in branding and relationships with its customers has made YKK indispensable. End-users trust the brand. As a result, YKK’s customers use the YKK brand as a selling feature when selling to the End-user. That’s a good place to be in.
A wonder product. Shoes use this all the time as a means to fasten shoes. It is an alternative to laces for those that can’t tie laces just yet (kids), those that can’t tie laces anymore (the aged) and those that are too lazy to tie laces (no age bracket there).
Why is it a wonder product? Well did you know that a two-inch piece of VELCRO can hold 80 kgs. Also, did you know that in the first-ever artificial heart transplant, the ventricles of the artificial heart were held together by VELCRO. Also NASA can be partially credited for popularizing this product as well, as it has others. When NASA uses a product, people assume it is well- tested and of high quality. They used it for fastening pens and other objects in space.
Some interesting uses of VELCRO. It secures the AstroTurf at professional football stadiums. It is an alternative to Ziploc for resealing open packaging. Velcro was used in a space suit helmet to scratch their nose when they felt itchy.
How many of you knew that VELCRO is a brand? It is the company that invented VELCRO. The product category is called hook-and-loop fasteners. But since VELCRO did very little brand building and education, no one even knew the name of the category.
With its patent expiring in 1978, it lost out in a major way to competition. Many different types of hook- and-loop fasteners launched their product. And because no better name described the product, they all got referred to asVELCRO, by consumers and the companies making it. VELCRO became a generic. Just like Xerox, Jacuzzi, Band Aid, ChapStick, Thermos and many others.
When the patent expired, had the company embarked on a communication campaign to make people aware of the brand and the category, the benefits of the product and how their brand is the original and high quality product, it would have been a very different story for the brand.
Unfortunately, the brand did not do that and lost out. It is only as recently as 2011 that VELCRO started a communication campaign. It decided to educate on the multiple uses of the brand. With a brand line
“There is only one”. They are now trying to do what they should have done a long time ago. Trying to make people realize that there is only one VELCRO. The others are all imitations.
What the company realized was that consumers were already using VELCRO for hundreds of uses, most of which they were not aware of. So they decided to rope in these consumers to create user generated content for the brand.
They have also done a funny campaign in 2017, titled #DontSayVelcro, featuring singing lawyers. The theme of the song is that the indiscriminate use of the name is giving them grief.
The more recent campaign in 2018 was even funnier. It took all the feedback on the first campaign and made a song out of it. Many people hated the first campaign and spoke out about it. And the company used that to make a funny song thanking them for the honest response, and atleast now they were aware that the category is called ‘hook-and-loop’.
Despite this, the brand has a long way to go. After doing a fair bit of research, we could not find any big footwear brand mention that they use the original VELCRO as an ingredient in their brand. Something they would want to achieve.
Bally Shoes with Hook-and-Loop fasteners Adidas x Raf Simons with Hook-and-Loop fasteners
They are now on the right track when it comes to getting their brand name out there. Building awareness. And these funny commercials have the chance of making this brand a cool satirical brand that will get more and more shoe makers to use the VELCRO name as an ingredient in their shoe.
Takeaway:This is a wannabe ingredient brand. Unfortunately, it still has a long way to go. But the strategy is now clear. They are trying to build a brand name by directly talking to the End-user. All with the hope that shoe manufacturers, car furnishing makers, medical equipment manufacturers and all the others use the original VELCRO and credit them for it as a selling feature.
The Bottom Line
While shoe brands do look at big trends in terms of continuous product innovation in their launches, the move towards comfort and athleisure apparel and shoes, as well as Retro relaunches, there are multiple not-so-obvious, but equally impactful moves that shoe brands can make in India.
The shoe sole can tell many stories for your brand. The support it can give your feet, the spring it can provide when you run, the protection on rugged terrains, the traction on slippery surfaces, flexibility for natural movement, the minimalist support for those wanting to feel they are running barefoot. This is how we can develop this category. By having a continuous stream of new and interesting brand stories delivered through communication and activations. And the sole is a rich source for them.
The zip can be an important brand story not just for boots, but even for athleisure shoes. It is not that commonly used and perhaps that is why it is newsworthy. It can go beyond functionality and be a core design element. And in this case the shoe brand would not want to skimp and go for a cheap zip. The cost of the saving is not worth the risk.
VELCRO has a long way to go in terms of being mentioned as an ingredient brand. The product however is actually quite commonly used in shoes, but it is not clear whether it is the original or an imitation. Hook-and-loop fasteners have gone beyond the school shoe for young children and is used by many brands for functionality and design reasons. Its popularity is increasing as we see articles on the ‘Best velcro shoes of the year.’ And there are some really cool looking shoes in that list. So there is potential here for the Indian footwear brand to innovate, design aesthetically and not skimp on VELCRO.
It is time for us to step out of the usual everyday marketing activities. It is time for innovation, time for partnerships, time for a steady stream of interesting brand stories. These three cases are examples of unusual ways to do that. The next big sale will still need to be communicated. But the ideas and innovation funnel needs to be populated. And there are plenty of opportunities out there.
The author of this article works at Lowe Lintas (part of the Mullen Lowe Lintas Group). He is a seasoned professional with over 2 decades of experience and over 15 years with the agency working on some of the agency’s biggest clients and brands. Lowe Lintas is a leading advertising agency in India. It manages the most brands from India’s Top 10 Most Trusted Brands. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org