Talking Back

In their quest to create footwear that consistently gets the job done, work and duty brands are going into the trenches for inspiration. Core labels such as Magnum, John Deere and Bates are finding that connecting one-on-one with professionals in the field, from farm workers to police officers, provides valuable insight on how to create stronger product.

While some companies have developed longstanding relationships with individuals in their target audience, others routinely reach out to new ones for more diverse feedback. Either way, vendors agree that consumers appreciate the interest in their opinions, noting that this often leads to favorable word-of-mouth promotion.

“When reaching out one-on-one, [consumers] begin to take ownership of the brand — they become brand ambassadors,” said Brett Weitl, director of marketing for Modesto, Calif.-based Magnum USA. “Once you forge a relationship, the feedback becomes more honest and valuable.”

Magnum recently jumped at the chance to connect with the law enforcement community to mine product feedback. It started when a local police softball team in Stanislaus, Calif. — comprised of detectives, SWAT members and a sheriff — contacted the company about a team sponsorship. According to Weitl, the partnership led to a built-in consumer panel, as well as a marketing tool, with the brand’s logo featured on the team’s uniforms. In turn, the officers appear in marketing pieces for Magnum.

All 13 members of the team, renamed Team Stanislaus Magnum, are tapped for their opinions on everything from new designs to components. “We pick their brains about product,” Weitl said, “and they are now wear-testing our boots and apparel.”

This is not the first time Magnum has reached out to its customers. In 2005, the company introduced the M.T.A.C. (Magnum Tactics Advisory Commission), a consumer survey posted on its Website. There, consumers can submit feedback about product and new ad campaigns. Around 2,000 people have signed up to take part in the survey since its launch. A select number of respondents are chosen to participate in wear tests of the company’s products, further promoting a more personal connection between the brand and its target audience.

While Magnum values the opportunity to interact with consumers one-on-one, Weitl said the company has not abandoned more traditional focus groups. However, he pointed out that focus group participants do not always answer honestly. “They play off each other, [which makes it difficult because] we then have to read between the lines,” he explained.

Like Magnum, Bates prefers working with consumers individually rather than through larger focus groups. “When there are 10 or 12 people, [participants] often follow leaders with the strongest voice,” said Julie McCauley, marketing manager for the Rockford, Mich.-based brand, about the downside of focus groups. Therefore, the company has opted to work closely with consumers, specifically tapping law enforcement personnel in its hometown. “The Grand Rapids police department is in our backyard,” McCauley said. “We choose guys who have several different jobs, like working canine patrol units, as well as those on office duty.”

Most recently, Bates sought feedback from the officers in developing its Individual Comfort System, a new technology that allows wearers to customize their comfort level with the turn of a dial (see page 18 for more). In addition to having officers wear-test the shoes for comfort, durability and performance, the company had them participate in an online survey, followed by personal interviews. “It’s pertinent that we get that [feedback],” McCauley said. “Our customer is pounding the pavement or running through the river with a canine and needs our products to perform.”

Bates, which also produces footwear for the military, has a similar ongoing dialogue with servicemen and women overseas. Working with leaders in Special Operations Forces, the company has developed products such as its new lightweight Tactical Combat Boot, which features a Dri-Lex camouflage lining and Vibram Mutant outsole for superior traction. “We try to make sure these guys have the best product,” said McCauley.

While Magnum and Bates tap government personnel for feedback, John Deere, a division of Clarksville, Tenn.-based Dan Post Boot Co., gets a little help from its friends. For the past 20 years, Dave Mitchell, VP of product development for the brand (and formerly VP of product development for Georgia Boot), has been working with a local farming family in Adams, Tenn.

The Elliotts, now in their third generation, are ideal candidates for wear-testing John Deere work boots, according to Mitchell. “They farm every day, and they’re tough on their boots,” he said. “I’ve used them for [gathering input on] new designs, leathers and comfort features.”

Although the family’s 92-year-old patriarch does not participate, his fiftysomething sons and twentysomething grandsons routinely provide feedback. “They go through a lot of boots,” Mitchell said. And because the Elliotts also operate a greenhouse, their thoughts on waterproof product are welcome, too. “If their boots leak or hurt, they can call me the next day. They’re very honest. They’re old friends, so there’s no pretending between us. They take to heart what I ask them to do.”

Whether the feedback is positive or negative, Mitchell said, nothing compares to hearing first hand from work customers on the job site. “We learn from them, and it helps us grow.”


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