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Footwear Execs Dish on How They’ve Created Brand Fandom

Turns out, it’s possible to create a cult sneaker without the usual media assault and marketing blitz.

French footwear brand Veja hasn’t spent a single dollar on advertising since its founding in 2004 and sends one “kind of prehistoric” email newsletter to customers, co-founder Sebastian Kopp told the audience at ReMode in Los Angeles this week. Instead of bombarding potential buyers with ads and following them around the Internet, the brand has forged its remarkable success by relying on the original marketing channel: word of mouth.

Veja is emblematic of the two buckets of shoe types dominating the athletic footwear market today, said Greats CEO Ryan Babenzien: the “hype” sneaker, a la anything designed by Kanye West and friends, and the “premium quality essentials” that have become closet staples seemingly for man, woman and child. The sporting-inspired casual sneaker is having more than a moment, transforming how people dress for the office and for social events, pairing with skirts and with suits.

Though conventional wisdom dictates that data informs design, Veja bucked that trend by forgoing all of that market research and instead relying on crafting the smartly styled court sneakers its employees wanted to wear, Kopp said. A direct-to-consumer brand that now sells through partners like Net-a-Porter, Kopp keeps the price of its sustainably sourced footwear reasonably affordable by trimming the unnecessary fat that is marketing and focusing on “doing what you love.”

Veja might have been sustainable from the start, but Greats, now known for thoughtful sourcing, didn’t begin that way—and it’s resonated beautifully with young, conscious shoppers, Babenzien said. “I didn’t build Greats to be a sustainable brand,” he added, “but I believe you should be doing the right thing.”

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The Brooklyn-based footwear brand incorporates nylon thread made from reclaimed ocean plastic into its products. “I surf so that’s authentically aligned with my personal beliefs in what we need to do as a business,” Babenzien noted. Greats didn’t set out to have an environmental focus but “there’s an opportunity to be purposeful, he added.

Building on that journey toward responsible production, the CEO announced at ReMode that Greats is designing a shoe with an upper that’s 100 percent recycled. It’s on track to be available for sale by the end of Q1 2019, Babenzien said.

Birkenstock, which has the luxury of having a two-century history of sourcing responsible materials, decried the idea of forcing hollow attempts at sustainability. Noting that cork is one of the most sustainable products on the planet, CEO David Kahan said, “We were built on sustainability before anyone used that word.”

Young people can see right through a brand’s efforts to be “real” that don’t ring true, he said, and in an era dominated by “fake news,” shoppers seek comfort and reassurance in the products and brands they can trust.

Sometimes creating that trustworthiness works almost too well—though every company aspires to have a loyal, passionate following that goes to what may seem like extreme lengths to communicate their enthusiasm about their favorite products. Kahan recounted how some people dial into Birkenstock’s call center just to “rap” about the comfort-driven clogs and sandals that have remained largely unchanged for decades, with nary a whiff of selling going on during the conversation.

“There are freaks out there. There are weirdos,” Kahan said. “Every brand has their ‘wack pack.’”

With so many avenues—read: social media—available for fans to stan, that’s just how it goes these days. Said Babenzien, “Any great brand creates irrational emotion around what you’re making.”