In the more than 250 years Birkenstock since launched, the German comfort brand has weathered many business storms — and the COVID-19 crisis is no exception. In fact, said David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock Americas, the disruption is creating new opportunities for the brand as it reconnects with core customers and introduces the brand to new ones.
“We’ve gone through [many] world crises, so it gives us a little perspective,” said Kahan, about navigating through the event. “We know many people may have previously associated comfort with soft slippers, but after now weeks at home, they know there’s an [alternative]. This period may have given many an introduction to our brand.”
While the latest trends typically drive business, Kahan said in tenuous times, it’s familiar, tried-and-true brands that resonate with customers. “When times are uncertain, people look for products that give them a degree of certainty,” he noted. “Look at iconic products like Stan Smith, Adidas, Nike Air Force One. They [offer] an emotionally satisfying purchase – you feel good about buying them. It’s not like you’re going out shopping for something you think might be in style now, then out of style in 60 days.”
Here, Kahan discusses why the brand’s search metrics are at an all-time high, the power of brand identity, and staying close to your consumer.
In an uncertain business climate, where is Birkenstock position itself?
“We’re very excited about how we’re performing and the opportunity it creates. Our online search metrics have never been higher, and our social media and editorial mentions have been amazing, including the number of celebrities (none paid), sharing their love of our brand across social media — whether its Ellen Degeneres reading a book in her Birkenstocks, or Reese Witherspoon in Birkenstocks in her backyard, or “Aquaman” star Jason Momoa with his family, all wearing Birkenstocks. When Kanye West, a spokesperson for another brand, chooses to wear his personal Birkenstocks for a “GQ” cover, that says more than any ad campaign.”
How is Birkenstock supporting its hard-hit independent retail partners?
“I’ve always viewed them as the heart and soul of the industry and their health is important to us. We’ve been in constant communication with all of them, and I personally have spoken and communicated with dozens every week. We’ve managed the inventory flow and have worked with them to ensure our receivables are being managed so we may continue to meet their consumer needs. The sit-and-fit experience is extremely important to our brand and we believe many consumers may seek local stores once able to be back shopping in person.”
As e-commerce gains momentum, how are you approaching your digital strategy?
“We’re a true digital-led business. All products we bring to market have a launch timeline driven by digital and launch as a cohesive product story. Our brand fans expect us to engage with them directly. While we are state-of-the-art with our online technology, we couple this with an old-school call center. In addition to emails and, online chats, we offer live conversations with Birkenstock experts.”
Will Birkenstock continue with collaborations?
“Absolutely. We’re disciplined and very deliberate in who we collaborate with. We don’t do the simple slap your logo on a Birkenstock. Rick Owens is a great example. He is a long-time Birkenstock wearer and appreciates the authenticity and design aesthetic that make us who we are.”
What do you think it will it take for brands to survive the current economic crisis?
“Brands with iconic silhouettes will gain even more strength, such as Birkenstock, Nike, or Vans which are gaining momentum right now. For us, the COVID-19 crisis is business disruption, not a brand disruption. We’ve gained even more relevance during this [time]. When the pause button is off, we’re going to come back even stronger. You will also see a lot of vendors disappear or have big challenges since they’ve been highly promotional on their websites or have been dumping product into the secondary market.”
How, if at all, is the brand changing its strategies as the industry moves forward?
“The greatest shift is ensuring that any point of distribution between the brand and the consumer tells our story and shares our messaging versus just selling product. Our website is a great example. Our fans are choosing to engage directly with us. It’s about the lens we use in choosing where we distribute our product and how we allocate inventory. Every partner must connect us in a meaningful way to their consumers. It is all about high quality distribution.”
Going forward, in what ways do you expect the overall retail landscape to change?
“Let’s face it, consumers have been shifting to more online purchasing, gravitating to brands with true heritage and authenticity versus just labels. They have also been seeking more engagement with the brands they really value. The strongest brands and retailers together will be even more creative in bringing more product stories to the consumer rather than just trying to sell shoes.”