5 Questions for Hi-Tec’s Ed Van Wezel

Hi-Tec is getting into character to promote its cornerstone Big-Fit system for children.

The Amsterdam-based outdoor brand this fall will launch a multifaceted marketing campaign designed to spotlight the volume-adjusting technology, introduced in 2011, that enables shoes to grow with kids. The campaign, which includes in-store and digital components, stars a big-footed bear character, the Evergrowing Monster, created by veteran Disney illustrator Stephen Millingen.

“Big-Fit has become a very important part of our kids’ line, so we thought, ‘Let’s put our arms around it and play it up with a fun storytelling campaign.’ And who better than someone from Disney to know what excites kids?” said Ed van Wezel, CEO of Hi-Tec, which has made children’s shoes since its inception in 1974.

As part of the campaign, Millingen and Hi-Tec penned an illustrated storybook that tells the tale of a monster who can’t keep up with his growing body. The book will be available to qualifying retailers to offer as a gift-with-purchase. The monster also will appear on in-store display materials and on sizing mats, where kids can stand inside the monster’s oversized paws to have their feet measured. “It’s a fun way for kids to engage with our brand,” van Wezel said, noting that in the campaign’s second phase, slated for fall ’15, the Evergrowing Monster will be brought to life in an online movie and games. “The goal is to make this a much bigger franchise.”

Van Wezel said the campaign reflects a larger push to elevate a category that now accounts for nearly 20 percent of Hi-Tec’s sales globally. “We’re a family business, so making kids’ shoes has always been important to us,” he said. “It’s a business we take very seriously and hope to grow even bigger, as evidenced by the high level of this campaign.”

Here, van Wezel talks about the inspiration behind the Evergrowing Monster and why the outdoor industry shouldn’t always take itself so seriously.

How does the Big-Fit system work?
It’s actually a very simple technology. The shoes come with two insoles, and when the shoes start to get tight, the top insole can be removed. It gives the child an extra half-size in the shoe, allowing for six to eight more months of wear. It’s so simple, but it works, and it saves parents time and money.

Why did you decide to spotlight the technology in such a big way?
When we first introduced the system, it was only in two shoes. But because of its success, we’ve now rolled it out to our entire children’s line. That’s why we’re investing so heavily in this campaign. Also, we want to have fun with kids. The outdoor industry is a very serious business by nature, and people forget that it’s also about families going camping and hiking and spending time together outdoors. Kids need good, functional shoes [for these activities], too.

In a crowded market, do you find you can rely less on retailers to tell your product stories?
It really depends on the store. If you’re talking about a retailer like REI or a great independent, their staff turnover is a lot lower. They really know the product and take the time to explain the features and technologies. But you can’t always count on that so, yes, we also have compelling in-store POP kits to communicate our stories to consumers. It needs to be a mixture of both the retail associates and the [display] materials.

As a specialty outdoor brand, how important is it to create kids’ product with features and technologies specific to their needs rather than those of adults?
It gives you a reason for being. Otherwise, you’re just another brown hiking boot on the shelf. A lot of our competitors treat the kids’ business as an afterthought. They just ‘shrink and pink’ their adult styles. We give the category the attention it deserves. For instance, we’re the only brand that makes compression-molded EVA midsoles for kids. Most of our competitors just do rubber cupsoles. We want to give kids as good of an experience as possible and build brand loyalty with the next generation. If we can ensure kids recognize the brand Hi-Tec when they’re young, then hopefully it will lead to securing our market share for the future.

Studies indicate a decline in participation in outdoor activities among kids. As a brand, do you feel obligated to help encourage kids to get outside?
It’s a worrying trend, but I’m not going to be an activist and tell kids to leave the Xbox and get outside. Ultimately, it’s up to parents to lead the way and encourage their kids to be active and spend time outdoors. Our role [as a brand] is to make functional, versatile shoes for kids to wear when the family does decide to go out and visit a national park or go camping.

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