An investment in social listening, a reappraisal of the classic clog and a successful debut on TikTok – as well as an organic boost from the streetwear scene – helped Crocs’ sales lift an unprecedented 20% year-on-year. The Drum meets the marketer behind the turnaround strategy of a once-maligned brand.
Terence Reilly was in China when he was hit by a flash of fried chicken inspiration.
The global chief marketing officer of Crocs – and a shoe retailer through-and-through – had noticed how popular the all-American KFC brand was with Chinese consumers.
He began mentally drafting a crossover collaboration, one that would somehow combine a foam clog with a fictional colonel and his poultry. Then he wrote to KFC's parent company, Yum Brands, to see if the brand would would bite.
“We were flattered that they took our phone call and got the idea right away,” Reilly says.
One year later, the Kentucky Fried Chicken X Crocs line of footwear was born into the world of bizarre brand crossovers. Korean rapper and visual artist MLMA debuted a platform version of the drumstick-print clog, complete with two chicken-scented Jibbitz charms, at New York Fashion Week.
Powerless to the pun in front of him, Reilly dubbed the creative a “bucket list” collaboration. In reality, it was just one deal in a long and diverse list of collaborations Crocs has been inking in its mission to be seen as a brand of unquestionable cool.
Reilly joined Crocs in 2013 after a career flip flopping between financial and footwear brands. He stepped into the chief marketer job in 2015 with his eyes wide open, acutely aware of the shoe’s leprotic perception in fashion and lifestyle circles.
“We've been a much-derided meme – you know, you've probably seen it, ‘Those holes are where your dignity leaks out’?” he happily recalls.
“But everyone around the world knows the silhouette of the Crocs Classic. So, what we needed to do was move from the awareness, which we had lots of, into really making the classic more relevant.
“As I like to say, we needed to turn this from a meme to a dream.”
Reilly’s strategy was based in authenticity. Rather than frantically redesigning the shape of the shoe to follow trends, the tactic of previous brands owners, he chose to reembrace the original clog.
“That is our Big Mac, that is our Coca-Cola,” he says. “We launched a campaign that was focused on making the classic silhouette an iconic symbol. Because we know it’s always been a polarizing brand. But remember, when you're polarizing, there's one side of the polarization that loves you.”
The group of core brand fans who love the classic clog predominantly comprises an older female consumer who, when faced with the dichotomy, chose comfort over style. Crocs refers to this audience as the 'feel goods'.
However, as the marketer was planning his creative and media around the comfy-and-proud audience, something began to happen.
Youth culture started moving closer and closer to sportswear and street culture, and flat sneakers overtook heels as the shoe of choice for young women.
This meant Crocs’ raison d’être – providing comfortable footwear to all – sat within the fashion zeitgeist for the first time.
Reilly began capitalizing on this youthquake by investing heavily in celebrity endorsement. The strategy began with gusto in 2017 when Drew Barrymore introduced the ‘Come As You Are’ brand platform. Zooey Deschanel came on board two years later, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas joined the ambassador roster in January 2020.
But it’s Crocs’ investment in social listening that’s perhaps paid the biggest dividends in its quest to de-meme and grow its young audience – a group the marketing team dubs ‘the explorers’.
The company has brought the bulk of its marketing in-house and expanded the team in order to augment or amplify a tweet, trend or conversation as quickly as possible; that strategy, says Reilly, is “working wonderfully” so far.
“We're just been really fortunate to have a fast-moving team of marketers here who have really helped to rejuvenate and reignite the brand,” he says.
This team was behind the brand’s successful foray onto TikTok with the viral #ThousandDollarCrocs challenge. It was behind all four of Post Malone’s limited edition collections, which were designed off the back of a single, organic tweet from the rapper (“u can tell a lot about a man by the jibbits on his crocs” [sic]).
“Ruby Rose was on her Instagram story literally searching Crocs.com with her fans to decide what pair of Crocs she wanted to buy,” says Reilly. “I saw that, called up Ruby's representatives, and we dropped our first Ruby Rose collaboration in October of 2019.”
Now, buoyed by the success of the KFC collaboration, Reilly is taking this approach to celebrity partnerships and planning more cross-brand collaborations. Next up is a line with Liberty of London, the historic British department store, which will drop in the spring.
“We’re always looking to partner with brands that get it,” says Reilly. “We're always looking for ways to surprise and delight folks with huge celebrities and huge brands, whether that be in us moving into the streetwear space, or the fashion space or food.
“And because of our delightfully democratic nature, our fans want to see what's next. That's an exciting thing for us and for them.”
Crocs' next challenge will be in taking the success it's had in Western cultural relevancy and applying it to the Chinese market.
The KFC partnership was an “enormous hit” in the country when it was unveiled earlier this month, but Reilly is making sure he’s investing in the right celebrities – such as actor Yang Mi – to gain traction with consumers throughout the year.
He’s also installed a dedicated team to run marketing from Shanghai and hired a number of agencies to “help us identify opportunities, especially in the PR space”.
The impact of coronavirus is something Crocs is monitoring daily, particularly as its Asia-Pacific sales dipped by 1.2% before the crisis hit in Q3 2019 (the brand is announcing full-year results on Thursday).
However, with an “exceptional” performance in the US this year so far, it’s unlikely the outbreak will make much of a dent in Crocs’ top line, which the brand expects will have grown 12%-14% year-on-year.
“As a public company, our shareholders are hugely important to us,” says Reilly. “And in the three years since we've been activating this [marketing strategy], we’ve fueled 400% shareholder return in three years."
The one question these shareholders might think to ask on Thursday is whether long-term growth can endure the fickle nature of fashion trends, TikTok challenges and celebrity culture.