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Gordon Young
Editor-in-chief at The Drum

Dr. Martens says underground events are shifting boots as it marches on with 2020 plans

As it steps defiantly into its sixth decade, Dr. Martens is upping its experiential marketing budgets to ensure its history of subculture integration remains just as relevant today as it did when Pete Townsend smashed his guitar in 1967 while wearing a pair of its iconic 1460s. However, as the coronavirus continues to spread, plans for 2020 activations are now under a spotlight.

Dr. Martens has collaborated with emerging artists, creators and collectives on a series of experiences and activations which its marketing manager Michael Boaler claimed have resulted in a “growth in its brand confidence scores, growth in awareness, and an increase in younger audiences wearing its products.”

For six decades, Dr. Martens' trademark yellow-stitching boots have been the emblem for various groups of British culture; from 'Docs' wearing 60s skinheads, to 80s punks and goths, to 90s grunge fans clad in Nirvana smileys.

Keen to keep its subculture roots flowing through its veins, Boaler detailed how Dr. Martens decided to develop an events-led culture platform 18 months ago, following some analysis that determined it “could do [its] experiences better and could come up with a better strategy to reach more people.”

So, to pull those two together, Dr. Martens embarked on an extensive strategy-focused pitch, involving both media owners and experiential agencies in Q2 of 2019, upon which Amplify was appointed its experiential strategy agency.

Briefed to deliver a series of experiences and activations for Dr. Martens to inspire a new generation that empowers rebellious self-expression, Amplify set to work matching the shoe brand with pioneering and emerging artists, creators and collectors.

“Essentially this is predominantly about driving brand affinity scores,” he admitted. “This is about love, but obviously sales is a by-product, as we’re a business and the end goals will always be sales,” which Dr. Martens has been bossing in recent years.

Last August it announced that revenue was up 30% to £454.3m, with double-digit growth across all its key regions and channels - in particular e-commerce.

Responding to its brief, Amplify then developed a six-month-long events-led culture platform, with the first activation taking place in October with Shygirl at The Boot Room – an intimate gig space in Dr. Marten’s Camden branch. Shygirl dropped her new single in a room enjoyed by 60 guests, which was captured on film as part of a content series that delved into grassroots artists’ creative process.

“We work closely with the artists during the process,” said Alex Wilson, Amplify’s head of content. “We spend a few days with them and their communities on the project they’re creating, which culminates in a real-world experience where their fans get access to them.”

Then, in December, Dr. Martens hosted a week long exhibition with South West London artist Arlo Parks from the Boot Room, that surrounded her spoken word work. In conjunction with the exhibition, Parks wrote a bespoke poetry piece that was featured in the supporting video. And it proved a hit, with the spoken word film garnering over 96,000 views on the brands Instagram channel.

“We don’t want everything to just be London-focused," explains Wilson. “It’s about the authentic place to that community and the authentic place to that artist, and in 2020, we’re massively focused on hyper location across the UK, including activations in Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool and Dublin.”

Championing Glasgow’s musical talent and heritage, last month, the two put out a series of culture films that amplified documented the tale of Andrew Thompson – a hero in Glasgow’s active electronic scene as he worked to open a new online radio station, Clyde Built Radio, on Glasgow’s Barras Market.

Alongside a culture film - which launched on The Face - Dr. Martens hosted an event with local performers and a partnership with Glaswegian artist, Raissa Pardini, who created artwork for a Clyde Built Radio curated mixtape, as part of the radio station launch.

“In 2020, we’re massively focusing on local radio hosts in particular, which we see as the home of subcultures,” explained Wilson.

The Clyde Built Radio activation is the first of a series of things planned out for the year. “We’re continuing with some the culture platform films and events over the next couple of months,” details Wilson. “We have a very special programme in the UK where we hope to have a deeper connection with deep support for grassroots musicians and their communities.”

After Glasgow, next up is Gemma Dunleavy, a singer artist from Dublin, before working on an activation project with Girls in Films – a charity that supports up and coming female filmmakers.

Beyond that, Amplify and Dr. Martens are working out how best to broadcast and capture a music festival activation.

Despite investing more into experiential and seeing the results, plans for 2020 activations are now under a spotlight amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While the coronavirus continues its rapid global spread, the UK government is yet to implement any policy on events or schools. Despite this, major events like SXSW and Advertising Week Europe have been cancelled or postponed, with a number of agencies, including Amplify, cancelling or digitalising their events as extra precautions.

Dr. Martens has confirmed it has no plans to reconsider its experiential plans, stating as of this moment it has not had an impact.

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