How Clarks is tapping into 90s nostalgia to regain its cultural relevance
One of the decade’s most iconic brands, the Wallabee maker is taking advantage of our newfound love for all things 90s.
Clarks Torhill shoe inspired by the 90s / Clarks
Shoe brand Clarks has a rich history of being adopted by subcultures, from the Jamaican Rude Boys to the Beatniks in the US and the Mods in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Perhaps its most popular era, however, was the 90s when both Britpop and hip-hop put its Wallabee shoe on the map.
A cultural phenomenon, Blur and Oasis were avid fans, The Verve’s frontman wore a pair on the band’s iconic Urban Hymns record, while stateside the Wu-Tung Clan and MF Doom sent Clarks’ sales skyrocketing.
By the 00s though, with the rise of sneaker culture, Clarks lost its cultural relevance and, in the last two decades, it has become better known for one of its other strengths – school shoes. Now, though, the retailer is clambering back its cultural creds with a company-wide reinvention.
Conveniently timed for Clarks’ big cultural push has been the 90s revival, spurred on by TikTok trends with Gen Z sporting everything from spaghetti straps to bucket hats to cargo pants.
Tara McRae is Clarks’ global chief marketing and digital officer. She tells The Drum: “I’m a big fan of the 90s. Growing up in the 90s was a lot of fun.” To tap into the throwback, Clarks has released the Torhill shoe – its biggest drop of the year. “That shoe and that silhouette are inspired by the 90s, with the big gripper outer sole and the Wallabee upper pattern on top of it,” McRae says. “So that shoe comes from the vibe of the 90s in the styling.”
The shoe was launched on TikTok by Jabari Banks, who plays Will in Bel-Air, the reboot of the classic 90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Clarks also collaborated with 90s trending brand Eastpak for its Torhill collection.
“You’ve seen us play into it that and nod to that because it’s super trend relevant,” McRae says. She says that Clarks has the authority to tap into the 90s trend because it is authentic to its heritage. “We won’t do anything that’s not authentic, we will not just jump into a trend because it’s there. If it’s not authentic to Clarks and it doesn’t fit our aesthetic and our brand DNA, we won’t do it.”
Luckily for Clarks, it has its product and marketing archive to draw from. “For us working up the Torhill it came out organically from the archives and then played really well into the 90s vibe.”
The reinvention of Clarks
In 2021, private equity firm LionRock Capital Partners acquired Clarks for £100m ($139.2m). Since then, the nearly 200-year-old British shoe company has been in a period of transformation in its products and its marketing and is even in the process of revamping its stores, while just this week it unveiled a refreshed e-commerce site.
“We’ve done a lot of evolution work on the brand, modernizing it and delivering the Clarks brand to the modern consumer,” says McRae. Clarks has shifted to a digital and social first marketing strategy and put more data and research into finding and targeting its customer groups. The retailer also launched its new brand platform, ‘For The World Ahead.’
“We’ve done more work on the evolution of the brand in the past few years than we have done in a long time. But all of these things are laddering up to why the consumer is seeing us in a very modern light.”
In the US, McRae says brand affinity in the under-40s has doubled, while in the UK there has been “great mid-single digit growth” in the under-40 demographic for the metrics of ‘stylish, ‘inclusive’ and ‘fun’ – the metrics Clarks has been aiming for brand uplifts.
“The good news is the consumers all love the Clarks brand; they believe we’re quality and comfort and authentic and all that, but really making us culturally relevant and trend relevant is what we’ve been working on.”
Its repositioning has also started to turn around its finances, seeing a turnover of £920.3m in 2021-2022, which is up 18% from £775m in the 2020-2021 financial period. Profit after tax also jumped to £55.4m in 2022, from a loss of £180.2m in 2020-2021. “We’ve had an amazing couple of years from a brand standpoint; all of our metrics are all going in the right direction and the brand is really resonating.”
Suggested newsletters for you
Behind McRae’s marketing strategy
As part of its plans to get more cultural currency, Clarks has been forging a collaboration strategy with the likes of Supreme, Moncler, Aries and even Zara among its partners.
“Collaborations have been a very exciting part of our brand mix over the past couple of years. For us, collaborations are a way to excite our consumers; it could be to bring a new consumer into the brand that might not be familiar or excite our current consumer base and give them something different.”
Elsewhere in her strategy, the traditional publishers are still proving to be a vital part of Clarks’ mix. Here, the brand partners on content creation with the likes of Vogue, Elle and GQ and it has recently done a physical activation with Hype Beast.
On the digital marketing side, Clarks has entered the TikTok game, now counting over 4.5 million followers as well as boasting active Instagram and YouTube channels. Clarks has also found success in the metaverse, especially with its kids’ demographic.
She acknowledges that “brands that jumped into the metaverse because it was a trend were the ones that jumped out quite fast.” She says Clarks took a more considered approach, launching in Roblox in May 2022 with a game aimed at youth and kids; a year later, in 2023, it returned to Roblox with a fresh game.
For McRae, though, there is always a balance to strike when pushing the brand into new places and spaces. “Most brands are looking to really capture that Gen Z or, also for us, younger Millennials audience – you’ll see that by some of the stuff we are doing with collaborations. But Clarks will not alienate our more mature consumer, so that is where you’ll see partnerships like Nile Rodgers and Liam Gallagher.” This is where she will execute different media mixes and different marketing strategies for both older and younger generations.
@clarks #BTS with Beabadoobee & Nile Rodgers #Clarks #AW23 #ForTheWorldAhead ♬ original sound - Clarks
In 2021, the retailer created the Clarks Collective, which recruits influential people who have “progressive values” to represent the brand for each season. For Autumn/Winter 2023, Clarks has tapped musicians Nile Rodgers and Beabadoobee.
“What we loved was that juxtaposition of somebody really authentic, well-established and who has been fighting and pushing for change for all of these years and somebody new and fresh on the scene. Their unique style comes into play as well – they’re both super trend-relevant and stylish.” Previous celebrity partners have included Liam Gallagher and footballer Raheem Sterling.
Looking ahead to McRae’s two-year strategy, she’ll be focused on planning for Clarks’ 200th anniversary as well the first collections to come from Martine Rose, Clarks’ guest creative director. “We have a lot of exciting products coming out next year, as well as our marketing strategy and campaign which will evolve in 2024 into brand new environments. Plus we will have a lot of our new stores, so it is going to be a big couple of years for us.”