Keds CMO on Being a ‘Student of Her’ for 100 Years

The following is based on Outside In, the customer centricity podcast.

Yoko Ono married John Lennon in them. Both Hepburns (Audrey and Katharine, that is) adored them. Even the Kennedy family was photographed in them.

For 100 years, Keds, the American footwear icon, has been the sneaker of choice for the fashion-forward, comfort-loving woman. But how does a centenarian brand stay relevant and desirable in today’s ever-changing market?

“Frankly, [by] just being a student of her,” says Emily Culp, Chief Marketing Officer at Keds. “What keeps us maniacally focused is thinking about our consumer today. She drives everything we do.”

I spoke with Emily at Wolverine World Wide headquarters (Keds’ parent company) for the latest episode of the Outside In podcast. A brand marketing guru with years of experience in the beauty and fashion industries (she’s led marketing teams at Esteé Lauder, Unilever, and Rebecca Minkoff, where she oversaw the launch of its NYC flagship store of the future), Emily joined the Keds team in 2015, just before its 100th birthday. She called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Keds’ audacious devotion to her, the Keds customer, is woven into the canvas of the brand’s rubber-soled history. Keds were the first sneakers ever created for women. “Thinking back to 1916, women, if they wanted to play sports, were running around in high-heeled boots that were laced up to their knees. [It was] very constrictive,” Emily says. “Keds had the insight and vision to create a rubber-based sneaker that would empower them…So [women] really could go where they want to go and be who they want to be.”

What I find remarkable is that, since its beginning, Keds has been obsessed with constant inquiry into her life: Who is she? What are her passions? What does she need to empower her to succeed? Everything the brand is, does, and stands for is an homage to her. It’s right there in the Keds tagline: “Ladies First Since 1916.”

Perhaps that’s what keeps the brand so refreshingly modern and relevant. New Keds silhouettes like the “Ace” and “Kickstart” are as popular as the classic “Champion.” The brand has partnered with retailers like Barneys; brands like Kate Spade, Rifle Paper Company, and the Parisian textile house Malhia Kent; and emerging artists like Kristin Texeira. There’s also the Keds Collective, a celebrity partnership/brand ambassadorship that embodies and advances Keds’ fierce commitment to strong female leadership. “One of the most important things for us is [partnering with] women who fundamentally believe in female empowerment,” Emily says.

Of course, understanding and connecting with the Keds woman today is more nuanced than it was a century ago. For one thing, she’s in more places than ever before. “She’s a global consumer,” Emily says. She’s also more complex. “She’s multifaceted. She’s entrepreneurial. She craves fashion and art.”

Staying on top of what’s hot and what’s not – and how women are styling their Keds – takes a variety of approaches. And a keen eye. “When I’m walking through airports or watching her shop, it’s looking at her as an individual and how she expresses herself and how we can integrate into her life,” Emily says. Keds also gathers feedback from customer service, pays close attention to what customers are posting and saying on social media, and pours over the ratings and reviews they leave on Keds’ ecommerce sites. Other tactics, like co-creation workshops, play a big role in product development and content creation.

Then there’s all the data. “We have more tools than you can fathom,” Emily says of Keds’ data collection abilities. But, in an industry as fast moving as fashion, sorting through all the numbers to determine what’s worth pursuing can be intimidating. So Emily encourages a culture of fast learning and constant testing. “To me, the most important thing is garnering the insights. And then it’s all about speed. If you feel 70% assured of yourself, test it. And, if you’re going to fail, fail fast and cheaply. And if you’re going to win – and that’s what we’d prefer – the key is the momentum.”

She’s also focused on helping her organization collaborate together on big projects. A way to work with her team in a fast and efficient way is something Emily calls “pods.” Assembled to drive innovation and generate revenue, the pod is an agile team of experts (e.g., a developer, a user interface designer, a copywriter) aligned to deliver against one goal. “You have senior people who are best of breed in each of their functional areas, and they’re all aligned to one KPI,” Emily explains. “So you have one pod that can move together so they can make very rapid decisions and win.” Keds has piloted the use of pods for the entire Wolverine organization.

Long term, Emily says Keds “will be far more globally relevant.” The brand is currently ramping up resources to target growth in Asian markets and global culture epicenters like London. E-commerce and mobile are also huge focal points. “One of the first brand expressions any consumer might see might be on their phone,” Emily says of the power of mobile to relay the Keds brand story.

Ultimately, Emily believes that the key to Keds’ success is to “balance honoring the heritage of the brand [with] modernizing it.” That can’t happen without constant empathy for the lifestyle and of Keds woman.

“Maybe she’s the head of a private equity or venture capital firm. She’s running for meetings. Why shouldn’t she be comfortable and look fashionable at the same time?” Emily wonders. “That’s who we create sneakers for.”

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