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Keen’s New Target: The Outdoor Family + More of Its Big Initiatives for the Rest of 2021

Keen has racked up several wins so far this year, and is banking on key initiatives to pay dividends in the back half, making up for the tumultuous 2020 that decimated the footwear industry.

So far in 2021, Keen has seen strong growth in multiple categories, including its trail head and outside urban business units climbing more than 50%, and utility is up around 50%. Overall, the brand is up 30% for the year, which Keen senior VP of global marketing and creative Steve McCallion believes is also how Keen will end its year.

Part of the reason for the early 2021 sales increases, according to McCallion, is the brand’s ability to capitalize on emerging trends.

For starters, the exec explained that a new consumer group emerged from COVID: the outdoor family.  

“The pandemic shut down sports teams. What did families start to do? They became a team. It became about togetherness and we started seeing families buy entire lines like, ‘We’re all going to get the Tempo Flex, we’re all going to get Targhees and we’re going to go hiking,'” McCallion said.

Keen Ridge Flex
Hikers wearing the Keen Ridge Flex boots.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Keen

Also, McCallion said the company has connected with new explorers who are highly influenced by the sneaker world and approach the outdoors differently from those who are more experienced.

“The long haul, the thru hiking, that kind of stuff is not driving what we’re seeing. There are tons of outside athletes emerging, which is kind of a new category,” McCallion said. “It’s been around from trail running and stuff like that, and trail running is on fire, but now it’s crossing over to speed hiking or fitness hiking becoming a category.”

He continued, “The traditional notion is, ‘I want to escape and convene with nature.’ Now, it’s, ‘I want to go outside to get fit.'”

This consumer, McCallion said, has responded well to the brand’s Ridge Flex and Tempo Flex styles, which feature technology that makes it easier for the boot to flex.

Aside from the outdoor family and fitness-focused explorers, Keen was able to capitalize on the hiking boom in 2020 with sales of its popular Targhee boots, which was one of the year’s best-selling hiking boots domestically. Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser with The NPD Group Inc., told FN in February that the look was a top five-selling hiker, earning a spot on a list with boots from competitors Timberland, Merrell and Columbia.

Keen Targhee 3 Waterproof Mid
Keen Targhee 3 Waterproof Mid.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Keen

Keen also made headlines with its eye-catching line of footwear inspired by the art of the late Jerry Garcia — featuring a new-look Newport sandal and Uneek shoe — with a portion of proceeds from sales going to voter registration nonprofit HeadCount. “To us, this is the future of collabs,” explained McCallion. “Nobody needs another collab that’s just being silly and trying to be different.”

With the success of the drop, McCallion confirmed with FN that more shoes are slated to arrive in the fall.

However, Keen was not immune to the effects of COVID, and by year’s end, the company’s sales year-over-year were flat, according to McCallion.

The outdoor footwear company did, however, experience growth in key categories and regions, with its utility segment and its business in Japan both up single digits.

And even though Keen worked to get itself in a position to connect with new outdoor consumers, there are industry-wide challenges ahead that the brand isn’t immune to.

Late last month, the Outdoor Industry Association delivered its 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends report stating the historic level of engagement experienced in 2020 is not expected to continue. The findings revealed that one-quarter of new participants don’t want to continue their new outdoor activities and that this figure “may grow sharply as consumers return to pre-pandemic habits.”

For McCallion, the answer is how brands — Keen included — pay attention to new consumer behavior versus staying the course.

“I think there has been a redefinition of the outside — the exclusive outdoor versus everyday outside — and the brands that understand that have an opportunity [to win consumers],” McCallion said. “The question will be whether or not the industry responds to the redefinition.”

The aforementioned report also addressed the diversity and inclusion issues impacting participation. It stated white people made up near three-quarters of participants last year, 6% were Asian or Pacific Islander and 9% were African American or Black. Also, it revealed a 7% annual decline among Asians for the past three years, and a stagnating participation for the last three years among Black people.

Although Keen has long worked to make the outdoors a place for all, McCallion admitted the efforts have not yielded the desired results.

“From the beginning, we’ve been about access and inclusion. But if you look at the numbers, there’s nothing to brag about. The industry is failing. We’re failing. We have to do better,” McCallion said. “If people don’t see other people like them participating on a regular basis, they won’t participate because they don’t have the ‘I want to be like that’ feeling. That’s how human beings are wired. So we need to do a better job of showing diversity in our materials.”

He continued, “But that’s just marketing stuff. It’s got to go deeper than that. There’s barriers overcome like safety and feeling of comfort. We have a blog post where [nonprofit Soul River Inc. founder] Chad [Brown] talks about having to carry a Glock [pistol] when he goes fly-fishing. That’s just messed up.”

For Keen, there is no one right answer to fix the problem. McCallion said the company will continue to work with, and listen to, organizations that are focused on creating connections with nature for marginalized groups including Soul River and Outdoor Afro.

Also, it will focus on getting younger generations excited about the outdoors, which includes helping Outdoor Afro expand its Outdoor Afro Making Waves initiative, which gives swim lessons to Black youth, their families and caregivers.

Internally, Keen has also done some reflection, and wasn’t pleased with its gender and race makeup. To rectify this, McCallion said Keen has a goal of ensuring at least 50% the people it interviews for all positions includes BIPOC and women, and that the company — directors included — will become 20% BIPOC. It intends to hit this mark by 2025. Also, Keen will look to be 50% women overall by 2025 and have 50% of its director positions occupied by women by 2030.

What’s more, every hiring manager will have training on how to be non-biased during the interview process, and Keen is working with outside organizations — including Noirefy and Camber — to ensure all job descriptions and postings do not have any implicit bias.

In addition to its diversity-focused initiatives, Keen is also continuing on its sustainability mission.

Most recently, Keen bolstered its sustainability mission in March, when it challenged brands on World Water Day to be free of PFCs — commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” — by 2025. To hit its own PFC-free goal, Keen said it has committed 10,000 hours and spent more than $1 million, resulting in saving more than 180 tons of fluorinated chemicals from being introduced into the environment.

Looking ahead, Keen will lean into its eco-friendly initiatives, with an emphasis on its Harvest upcycle waste program. “The real focus there is on how we remove industrial waste and turn it into a useful product that’s going to last a while,” he said.

The company has begun to experiment with car seat leather, and is already using coffee grounds — a lesser discussed industrial waste product — as filler in outsoles. The shoes with coffee grounds — specifically the Elsa Harvest and Eddy Harvest sneakers —  will arrive this fall. Keen confirmed footwear using car seat leather will also release in the fall.

Also, Keen has plans to reveal in the not-so-distant future a plant-based solution that will remove 55% of plastic in a midsole.

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