Mario Moretti Polegato has a special connection to the Nevada desert.
When the Italian mogul was attending a convention for the family wine business in Reno during the early 1990s, the sneakers he was wearing became so hot and uncomfortable that he decided to take action. With a Swiss Army knife, he perforated the soles DIY style to achieve some relief. Upon Polegato’s return to Italy, the exec hired a team to create proprietary technology based on his own idea — and that’s how the brand was born a few years later.
After two decades, Geox — back in the Nevada desert at FN Platform in Las Vegas this week — is amping up its focus on the U.S., which has been a challenging market to crack. As Geox works to develop the business, it is tapping into the expertise of key hires who understand the intricacies of the American consumer.
After appointing former Gucci Americas COO Matteo Mascazzini as CEO last year, Polegato also recently hired Andrea Feccio, who previously had stints at Tod’s and Louis Vuitton, as menswear designer. Veteran shoe designer Ernesto Esposito continues to work with the brand, and now there’s a dedicated U.S. team in place spearheaded by country manager Roberto Perrone.
Both in the U.S. and China, Geox is looking to replicate the success it’s seen in Europe, particularly in its home market of Italy.
“Brand awareness in the countries in which we operate is 65 percent. The Geox customer is the entire family — men, women and children alike — and whole families shop together in our stores,” said Polegato, founder and chairman of Geox. He spoke to FN during an interview at Villa Sandi, one of the family’s wineries located in the sprawling hills around the town of Biadene in Italy’s Veneto region, where Geox is based. (The wine side of the business is run by Polegato’s brother, Giancarlo Moretti Polegato.)
Geox’s headquarters incorporates laboratories where the shoes are conceived and subjected to rigorous testing procedures, plus a pilot center with the capacity to produce 10,000 pairs of shoes a year. (The majority of Geox’s production takes place in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, India and Serbia.)
In Italy and beyond, the brand is putting major emphasis on sustainability, a burning industry issue that is important to Polegato. Its solar-powered plant near the Biadene headquarters produces 40% of the electricity the entire complex consumes.
For fall, the brand is launching a sustainable version of its hero Nebula sneaker, and Geox is also taking its eco-messaging to the race track through Geox Dragon, a budding partnership with the Formula E team founded by Jay Penske. (Penske is also the chairman and CEO of FN’s parent company.)
U.S. retailers are bullish on the brand’s growth potential stateside. “We now have a resource to get the latest trends that combine fashion comfort and value. They finally figured out the product part,” said Danny Wasserman, owner of independent Tip Top Shoes, in New York. “Now their job is to tell consumers and retailers. The opportunity is huge.”
Both Tip Top and Zappos.com are also experiencing strong momentum in Geox’s kids’ business. “They’re doing a good job of staying on top of fashion trends that are both functional and fashionable,” said Mo Miranda, kids’ footwear buyer at Zappos, noting that the brand’s breathable, waterproof materials are key. “Sticking to this strategy will help ensure their designs align with the interests of today’s kids, while simultaneously satisfying the needs of their parents.”
Miranda added that a collaboration with Pokémon has also helped the brand generate buzz among children.
Here, Polegato and Mascazzini open up about other cool collaborations in the works and their new vision for success in the U.S. market.
Matteo, your previous role was COO at Gucci Americas. How has that experience informed your strategy for Geox?
Matteo Mascazzini: “We’re not trying to become a luxury brand. But we want to infuse more modern style into our collections. In the same way that Gucci managed to [incorporate] its DNA across categories in a much more contemporary way, that is what we aim to do with Geox to ensure we connect to today’s consumers. That is the lesson I learned at Gucci, albeit in a completely different environment.”
As you target the U.S. in a bigger way, what is your main priority?
MM: “We want to achieve the same credibility and appreciation as a premium brand in the U.S. as we have in Europe. We are targeting American department stores to be seen in a multi-brand environment alongside our most successful competitors. We also have a new U.S. team dedicated to servicing these clients. We know we can’t replicate our success story by just showing up. We have a great product and a great brand name, but to penetrate such a challenging market, we need to ensure we listen to our clients and retail partners.”
Who is your main competition in the U.S.?
Mario Moretti Polegato: “If you look at Geox for quality and design, there are many competitors. While we have introduced a new, more fashion-led design team, Geox is more about style, heritage and respect for materials. But if you consider the well-being aspect — our innovative technology and the comfort factor — then you can’t compare us to other brands.”
Which retailers are you targeting and how will you differentiate the brand from others on the retail sales floor?
MM: “We already have a strong relationship with Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, and are also speaking to Saks. Some department stores’ online business is approaching 50% [of their overall sales]. This is where we can be particularly successful because the digital space is a very good medium to express our diversity. On the floor, it can be more complicated because it takes well-trained personnel to explain to the client how our shoes compare to our competitors. Although department stores are key for us in the U.S., we are also mindful of forging strong relationships with [independents and specialty retailers].”
How important is your own e-commerce to your overall U.S. business strategy?
MM: “Online is the greatest door on the planet and works in synergy with our brick-and-mortar distribution. It is critical from a communications point of view to establish the brand but also in commercial terms. We previously had a partner running our online retail, but as of a month ago we took it in-house. We did the same last year for Europe.”
How is your marketing strategy shifting?
MMP: “Everyone knows that traditional advertising is changing as people are engaging via their phones, so while we are still operating in the more traditional print-based media, we are also investing more in digital advertising, creating specific online and Instagram-based campaigns.”
MM: “To tell the Geox story in a more emotional way, we are working on short films with micro-influencers, marrying their personal stories with our brand values. Our spring ’19 campaign featured a free-diving champion who holds a record for holding her breath underwater and a 108-year-old barber from New York whose passion for his trade keeps him alive. The strategy is proving successful because people feel more connected to them than to huge celebrities with millions of followers.”
Another way you’re building brand awareness is through a sponsorship with the Geox Dragon Formula E team. What’s so attractive about the partnership?
MMP: “I was offered the opportunity to test-drive an electric car, and I drove 200 miles from Milan to Venice. I calculated the energy cost [the monetary and nonmonetary costs associated with the production, transmission and consumption of energy], and discovered that I only spent $10. Electric cars offer an incredible way of changing lives for the good. The partnership with Jay Penske also presents a great opportunity for us to test new models and materials. We initially tested our Aerantis shoe under tough conditions with Geox Dragon.”
Why does Geox resonate so strongly in the children’s market?
MM: “We are known as a provider of school uniform shoes, due to our reputation for quality and safety. All our materials are certified by the Italian Podiatrist Association. Standards for children’s shoes are even more rigorous than those designed for adults.”
Following your successful collaboration with Pokémon, what other tie-ups are in the works?
MM: “We have a partnership with Disney, both a general one and a capsule tied to a huge fall movie. We will also have a collaboration with the World Wildlife Foundation for spring ’20, and we will make a 2 euro donation for every pair sold.”
Sustainability is a huge conversation in the industry. How much are you focusing on this?
MM: “For Geox, sustainability isn’t just a slogan. It’s truly embedded in everything we do, and we have always taken a holistic view of [wellness]. For fall ’19, we have launched a sustainable version of our hero Nebula sneaker with a recycled upper. Each pair is made from 2.5 plastic water bottles. It really struck a chord, and we’re having a tough time keeping up with demand.”
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