It is hard to find a more personal product than footwear, especially when a worker’s safety depends on it. For Red Wing Shoes, a maker and seller of work boots, its brand is literally with its customers every step of the way. The company’s boots are worn by landscapers, farmers, loggers, miners, and workers in many other industries where footwear is not just a fashion statement but a form of protection.
Even with a history that spans more than 110 years, the company cannot take for granted that its product will remain front and center with buyers. Dave Schneider, vice president and chief marketing officer with Red Wing Shoes, spoke with Street Fight about keeping the brand connected to its audience and the Wall of Honor, which lets customers share stories about their trusty, well-worn boots.
Retail, often through third-party stores, is typically the first place of interaction with your products. Why is it important for Red Wing Shoes to have its own presence and interaction with consumers that does not rely solely on third parties?
We control our own distribution, which is a key part of what we believe is a strategic advantage of the company. We make our products and we sell our products. We do have third-party channel partners out there. My business is primarily outfitting workers, construction guys, guys that worker in the energy sector, guys that work in manufacturing. High-end, premium work footwear is my business. We have about 500 retail outlets today, of which it is a combination of dealer-owned and company-owned. That’s important because I can control to the nth degree what happens in company-owned stores, but I have to influence the dealers’ side of the house, the benefits to them and to encourage their investments behind the marketing programs we do on their behalf.
Unlike most of the retail world today, we’re actually growing. We’re opening a significant number of stores over the next several years. Getting product into the hands of our consumers is a really good thing. It’s not to say we don’t have a fast emerging and very fast-growing e-commerce business — that’s one of our largest growing channels that we distribute product across. We also believe in the power of local. We believe in the power of getting the product into consumers’ hands, allowing people to come into our stores and touch and feel the product, of having that premium service experience.
There are two sides to our brand’s value proposition. One is the product we make; making premium, high-end footwear and we want to ensure we provide a premium service experience in our store environment. My ability to control for the customer experience in the store is far more pronounced than when I am dependent on others. It’s a key mechanism for us to ensure that you are having a high serviceable, high fit-in-fit experience. Someone coming in off the street, trying the footwear on, ensuring you are buying the right footwear for your job is part of the consultative process that happens at retail.
What are the specific actions the company takes to build its local connections? How do employee footwear protection programs show what your brand offers?
We sell work footwear across 14 vertical industries today. Everything from residential construction, someone who has just built a house, to big oil and gas providers in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and everything in-between. Our local presence is a combination of physical brick-and-mortar stores, and trucks out on the road where we bring the footwear out to an employer’s job site. We will go to the customer’s place of business, through with agreement from them. All the footwear on the track has been pre-approved, more often than not, by their safety director. There’s always choice, so they’re not being forced, but there’s choice in a very tight spectrum of products given what their job circumstances are.
What we live in fear of is that we’re not protecting employees of a given job site. We have some 200-plus styles of footwear on our work business. Making sure someone gets into the right footwear for their specific safety concerns might be is a critical piece of our brand. If you’re climbing high, electricity wires, you need a specific type of footwear. If you’re working on road construction, you need a different type of footwear.
Does the Wall of Honor help build that personal connection the users of your products?
The actual campaign is called “America Working.” That’s about really understanding where our brand has actually had impact. Consumers will talk about our products being like a tool on their tool belt. From a hyperlocal point of view, it’s about how does our product enable workers to do their very best. Our footwear has been on everything from the making of the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago. The spire that was put on the top of that in 1974, and just refreshed in the past year, the guy who climbed that tower and put that spire in place was wearing Red Wing boots. We’ve got all sorts of stories like that.
Are there any platforms or technology that particularly lend themselves to Red Wing’s approach to local marketing?
I’m not the local marketer for the Des Moines store. I’m not the local marketer for stores in Manhattan. I’m not that guy. What I’m driving are national programs with local relevance. We offer a variety of national programs to all of our dealers and company-owned stores. Company-owned stores are always opted in automatically. We do create packages of activity that we can scale from a national point of view. We do a ton of e-mail. We’ve gone through a three-phase approach to what we are doing.
Phase one was to get our data in shape, which means all of our location-based data. Locations, hours of operation, lat-long information, all of the data fed into the digital ecosystem needed to be little bit cleaned up.
Phase two, we re-platformed all of our dealer microsites so every store in the country now has a local site. The third phase is to continue to pour paid search dollars on top of those sites so they can be found. There’s some organic value in that with customized and tailored local content. All of the company store managers and owners have access to their local pages if they want to tweak copy and add copy, which enhances the SEO value.
Aside from the data and technology, one of the most critical enablers is the fundamental relationships we have with the field — having good relationships with your store dealers, managers, with the field representation.
Joao-Pierre Ruth is a Street Fight contributor.