In today’s episode, we talk about one of the most iconic shoe brands of all time – Converse, its history, downfall, and an amazing rebirth.
Marquis Mills Converse was a factory manager for a footwear manufacturing company. In 1908 opened the Converse Rubber Shoe factory in Malden, Massachusetts. Originally Converse made winterized rubber footwear for men, women, and children. In 1915 Converse branched out, recognizing a need for durable basketball shoes for the growing sport, and started making athletic footwear. In 1917 they started manufacturing the shoe for which they would forever be known.
The Story of Chuck Taylor
In 1923 Chuck walked into the Converse sales offices in Chicago, complaining about sore feet. And he had ideas about how their shoes could be made better. One thing led to another, and this semi-pro basketball player was eventually hired as a salesman for the Converse Rubber Shoe Company.
Chuck Taylor became more than a salesman, he became the original Brand ambassador. Taylor made his living as a salesman by traveling across the country, conducting basketball clinics, and selling shoes. Chuck BECAME Converse shoes. And the Converse ALL STAR was Chuck’s baby.
In 1932, in recognition for all he’d done for the brand and the Converse company, Marquise Converse put Chuck Taylor’s signature on the All-Star patch, and the classic “Chuck Taylor All-Star” was born. And today the iconic Converse All-Star is widely known by a second name: “Chucks.”
Converse after the war
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Converse was synonymous with America. Converse had become the standard among high school, collegiate, and professional basketball players. In the 60s, Converse had about 70-80% of the basketball shoe market with Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars being worn by 90% of professional basketball players Converse All-Stars were the official basketball shoe of the Olympic games from 1936 until 1968. Due to the success of the All-Stars, the company began to expand and open more factories. They were dominant, ut competition was coming.
The game changes…
In 1972, Converse bought PF Flyers, their biggest competitor at the time, from B.F. Goodrich. This led to a monopoly in the shoe market that was split in 1975 by an anti-trust lawsuit/ It was a sign of things to come… Converse’s days without significant competition were numbered. During the 70s, the competition heated up and the game of basketball was changing.
Players were moving to a more exciting fast-break style of play (as compared to the slower, more “pass-and-shoot” style of the early 20th century), and along with the changes in the game came a need for a shoe with more support, and better protection.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, a flood of new brands hit the market including:
Their ubiquitous presence in the NBA was slipping, as many athletes switched to shoes with leather uppers and harder rubber soles. Shoe technology was getting better, and Converse wasn’t keeping up. Converse had been too dependent on the All-Stars brand – and had taken too long to innovate with the game. By the late 80s and early 90s, the market for All-Stars had disappeared in favor of flashier shoes. Converse was left in the dust while at the Converse offices, the attitude was overly focused on nostalgia.
The company offices had black-and-white photos on the walls that celebrated the past.
In 1992, a frustrated Magic Johnson, a former endorser of Converse, said, “Converse as a company is stuck in the ’60s and ’70s. They think the Chuck Taylor days are still here.” Other companies spent millions on design, research, and advertising to expand their lines to include shoes for aerobics and cross-training. Higher revenues meant rivals could spend more on celebrity endorsements than Converse By 2000, Converse had repeatedly slipped into receivership and had debt piling up yearly. On January 22nd, 2001, Converse filed for bankruptcy. The era of Converse was over.
Part 2: The Rebirth
In July of 2003, Nike bought Converse for $309 million. Nike owned the NBA, and they weren’t likely to revive Converse as a competitor. So what would they do with it? The folks at Nike are nothing if not marketing geniuses. And they hatched a plan to capitalize on the history of the converse brand without cannibalizing their performance athletic footwear sales.
In the late 2000s, Nike formed a plan to build on the love for all things 80s. They saw that the 80s were like the new 60s with millennials and Gen Z (and Gen X had never lost their love for the golden years)
They re-launched the Converse brand as a heritage/nostalgia brand and capitalized on what Converse had become culturally before its demise. Nike also expanded the Converse brand to businesses apart from shoes.
Converse dropped its original all-American message in favor of an image that would appeal to millennials: individuality and independence. Their 2008 “Connectivity Campaign” played up the brand’s counter-cultural appeal. The campaign extended globally into 75 countries, each customized with area-specific celebrities The “Connectivity Campaign” helped the brand post a 29% increase in year-over-year revenue.
A basic canvas sneaker was turned into a designer’s canvas, some Converse were designed by professionals like John Varvatos and others were designed by consumers. In 2015, Converse launched its “Made By You” campaign. The campaign was in stores, online, on social media, and exhibitions were in New York City, London, Beijing, and Mexico City. Appealing to the individual and embracing subcultures opened Converse up to a wider market than simply being an athletic shoe.
By 2000, Converse had sold more than 600 million pairs of All-Stars. As of 2019, Converse sold products through 109 company-owned retail stores in the United States and 63 stores in international markets.
Converse employees are counted among the 76,700 employees of Nike Inc. worldwide and even some of their less successful brands, like the Converse Cons of the 1980s are now nostalgic fashion staples.
The Converse Brand – once on the brink of disappearing, is now strong and vibrant again.
What can other brands/marketers learn from Converse?
- Just because you’re at the top doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore a changing market .It’s important to keep in mind when the shift comes, it comes fast and hard. One day Converse was at the top, the next they were a has-been. Never stop innovating, even if you’re the greatest shoe brand in the world.
- Even a heritage brand can’t afford to focus on the past.
- Don’t fix what isn’t broken but do rebrand it. While shoe technology was changing, the All-Star didn’t have to go away. Canvas shoes were more popular than ever, even as the All-Star died out. Converse failed to recognize that while their market was changing, the demand for their original All-Star was still there. It just looked different. People still wanted the classic Chuck Taylor All-Stars the only difference was which people wanted them. By identifying who their customers were and embracing them Converse was able to come back.
- Innovation and new technology is not antithetical to the value and effectiveness of simplicity. Converse was becoming less popular while Nike and Reebok were putting cushions, springs, and airtight chambers in their shoes. While Nike and Reebok did research, re-design, and release new shoes all the time, Converse has been selling it’s (essentially the same) shoe since the 1910s. You can BOTH innovate and maintain your core brand.
We talk about:
[03:20] Converse history
[10:20] Converse cultural importance
[11:20] Bad times for Converse
[18:00] The rebirth
[20:30] ‘Made By You’ campaign and its importance
[25:35] What can be learned