Steve Madden: the capitalist antidote to the brand purpose obsession

Madden was recently the subject of a Netflix documentary

Steve Madden, the founder of the eponymous shoe brand, cares little for corporate social responsibility, charity tie-ins or even sustainable production – he simply wants to make money for his company and his staff, with or without the instrument of brand purpose.

At a time when brands from Shell to Charmin are searching for a wider sense of purpose via their marketing, Madden has a straightforward, free market view on the place of his company in the wider world.

“It’s nice if [corporations] have some social responsibility – I’m not so keen on it personally,” he said on stage at Advertising Week New York. “I feel like we have a responsibility to our employees to provide a great place to work. I take that very seriously.

“It’s nice to do charity ­and we do it, but the responsibility I have to families – the company provides healthcare to 1,000 people or something like that – that’s an awesome responsibility. That’s what I’m thinking about. If we mess up and make the wrong shoes I’ll have to let go of 100 people, and what happens to those families?”

Madden recalled the time his company produced a pair of sneakers featuring the American flag in rhinestones following the 9/11 attacks. It’s unclear why he’s visibly embarrassed about the ‘Bravest’ line now, but he admits with candor that he “hated himself” for sending the shoes to production.

“I don’t like the idea of promoting sales and giving to charity,” he said. “I know a lot of people do that and of course the net result is a good thing, but to me it feels fake.”

Aside from his direct charity donations, which he is modest in declaring, the closest Steve Madden comes to CSR is its open policy of hiring prisoners. It’s a stance that’s glaringly close to his heart: the entrepreneur went to jail in 2002 for securities fraud and money-laundering charges (the story was immortalized in part in Martin Scorsese’s Jordan Belfort biopic The Wolf of Wall Street).

But unlike other brands, Madden keeps his progressive HR policies out of his marketing and comms, leaving his company’s purpose as a footwear corporation unquestioned.

The New Yorker prizes the success of his company and the quality of life of its employees above all things – even sustainability. He admits that while it’s an important subject in fashion – a nice-to-have quality – it’s not his priority.

He keeps his head office outside of midtown Manhattan and offers employees a "fun" but by no means opulent working environment. And his advice to those starting out in business is less from the school of brand-first, design-driven entrepreneurs and more from Economics for Dummies.

“Make what people want, buy it low and sell it high – there’s not much more to it,” he declared. “As you go along it gets more complicated but there are some fundamentals. I see people wanting to go [launch] their own business. They just want to talk about marketing and blah blah blah. But you need to make stuff that people want, and if you ain’t got that, you ain’t got nothing, kiddo.”

He added: “Make sure people like what you make and make sure you make money. That’s a big thing too that’s not to be glossed over – anyone can sell stuff and lose money, but you won’t be here very long.”

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