The comfort shoe market has a new target audience.
Gone are the days of eschewing youthful consumers, as millennial interest in the category continues to rise. Rather than viewing this surge as only a trend, the footwear industry is regarding it as a sea change.
“The comfort footwear market and the relationship developing with millennials is here for the long haul,” said Kitty Bolinger, EVP of sales for Dansko. The brand has seen 10% growth in the blooming sector, crediting the generation’s strong allegiance.
“They have very high expectations, and once millennials see what they have expected, they are very, very loyal to that brand,” she said.
Authenticity has also been key in creating attraction. For instance, Dansko’s more traditional styles — such as its Professional Clog, now sold at on-trend retail platforms like Free People — is connecting with both its core audience and fashion-forward fans. Bolinger explained, “That iconic heritage part of the business seems to be what is capturing millennial attention in sales.”
Birkenstock has also seen this consumer shift firsthand, ever since its signature styles began to pop up on the feet of influencers, fashion editors and on the runway. The brand took the opportunity and ran with it.
David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock Americas, told FN, “Instead of sitting back and just having our moment, we made some important strategic decisions that took it from ‘just’ having a moment to making it a ‘moment in time,’ whereby we reshaped the entire company.”
Since then, Birkenstock has been a pioneer in marketing to this demographic through collaborations with key retailers and designers, including partnerships with Barneys, Opening Ceremony, Valentino and Rick Owens.
“We believe this is going to move beyond a trend and into a necessity,” Kahan said. “Once somebody wears comfortable shoes, they expect that standard. They grew up wearing Vans, Converse and Nikes. Why would they ever get up in the morning and choose to not wear something comfortable?”
Earth Shoes, another comfort footwear brand with roots in heritage, found that going back to its origins of wellness was spot on for a complete rebranding. From shoeboxes to its website, Earth Shoes’ marketing overhaul had a specific reach in mind, and that was the millennial market.
“The most important and interesting part is the wellness component,” said the company’s marketing director, Katie Dobbs. “Wellness is cool now, and it’s something that millennials have embraced — it’s simply a way of life for them. It’s not about ‘goals’ or trying to drop 10 pounds for a wedding. [They] are much more wholeheartedly wellness-driven, from the way they eat and the way they live to being mindful. It’s a new attitude.”
Earth Shoes also noted its biggest marketing ROI has been through social media channels. “It’s proven to make them aware of what we’re doing,” said Dobbs.
From a sales standpoint, the company has had ample profitability, as well. “We’ve had a few really great years with 20% to 30% growth,” Dobbs said.
As for the future, most labels are maintaining their focus on the next generation.
“The way we look at our brand is likening it to a rock band,” Kahan said. “Bands don’t talk about their consumers; they talk about their fans. You never compromise your fans.”
Dansko revealed that it’s in talks with a retail platform on a special collaboration. “I cannot tell you yet whom it is with — we’re still in the lawyer phase,” said Bolinger. “We’re excited about learning more what the appetite is in the market for that type of product. Everything from price structures to marketing, we cannot wait to learn more.”