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How Rockport President Steve Holt Is Using Data & ‘Subtle’ Changes to Engage Younger Consumers

As Rockport marks its 50th anniversary this year, new president Steve Holt is capitalizing on the brand’s legacy strengths in order to attract the next generation of fans.

Holt was promoted to president in May after spending nearly 18 years at the brand at various times, filling multiple positions that were focused primarily on growing Rockport’s overseas business. In his new role, the U.K. native has been learning the ins and outs of the U.S. market and helping to hone the brand strategy using a data-driven approach.

“We have to reach a slightly younger consumer to move our brand forward,” said Holt, who is based in the Newton, Mass., headquarters. “So we’ve been doing a lot of work, digging into data and we’ve crafted a strategic playbook to go after some of those big opportunities,”

Like many footwear companies, Rockport has been challenged by the pandemic, which last year decimated sales in the dress fashion categories. However, Holt said that the brand has been bouncing back this year, led by stronger demand for dress-casual styles. “We learned from The NPD Group that Rockport has outperformed the [fashion footwear] category in the past six months, growing around 50% faster than our competitor set,” said the executive.

He credits that to a gradual return to the workplace, as well as to more events and social occasions that call for dress shoes. “I think as the world starts to emerge and return to some form of normality, we’ve positioned ourselves to be the brand of choice across a number of important wearing occasions,” said Holt. “We capitalized on [that by] developing casualised dress styles rather than just, you know, formal dress. Do we play in the formal dress category? For sure we do. But casualised dress has really driven unbelievable momentum for us.”

Rockport Total Motion DresSport
Rockport Total Motion DresSport shoes.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Rockport

He also is encouraged by the tremendous interest in the walking and outdoor categories, which spiked during lockdowns and has so far remained strong even as the world has opened back up. “We’ve been a leader in those spaces throughout our 50 years,” said Holt. “As we look ahead to 2022 and beyond, we’re definitely continuing to expand our collections and innovate in both these high-growth categories.”

Here, the brand executive shares more insights into how he’s expanding the customer base, plus his outlook for retail and the supply chain headaches.

You’ve said a key focus is targeting younger consumers. How are you going about — through marketing, product design or all of the above?

Steve Holt: “You don’t want to all of a sudden say, ‘We’re going to go for a younger consumer.’ You can’t do that. It’s got to be very subtle in your approach. We partner with First Insight to collect data, and it’s created a really interesting journey. We can get this data on certain styles that we feel confident in. But is that slightly younger consumer gravitating to those styles — to the aesthetics, to the technology in our shoes? And the answer is yes. The good news for us is that where we’re starting to engage that slightly younger consumer, without alienating our core consumer. And actually we’re starting to see our sales volume increasing with the core consumer too, because they’re engaged with our new marketing approach and the ambassadors we’re using around the world.”

Which U.S. retail channels are performing best for Rockport right now?

SH: “I’m truly excited and energized by the U.S. side of the business, for a number of reasons. Our digital platform is is doing very well and [has doubled since 2019]. Given the brand equity of Rockport, we’re really starting to propel that side of the business. We’re also seeing great strength in the upper department store channel. Our business is is performing extremely well with all the key players out there. And with our e-tail business, the feedback that we’ve actually had from our e-tailer friends is that we’re crushing it right now. And those aren’t my words — they are the words of the e-tailers. And then we also have the family channel and the downstairs channel. We’re doing a lot of work within the U.S. on all these channels to ensure that we we have the right product at the right place for the right consumer.”

Rockport ProWalker
Rockport ProWalker sneaker
CREDIT: Courtesy of Rockport

Given your expertise in the international markets, do you see other opportunities overseas to grow the brand further?

SH: “We’re in 60 countries now. Asia-Pacific is solid. We’re covered in Central South America, and our coverage in Europe is pretty good, but I would say there is more to leverage there. The most important thing for the Rockpool brand is to ensure that we engage A-class partners into our brand. And COVID has kind of put a dampener on expanding that distribution. But prior to COVID in the U.K., for example, we had a partnership with the No. 1 retailer in the whole of the U.K., so our positioning is very, very good. But we still have a great opportunity to propel that business forward.”

Speaking of COVID impacts, how have you been navigating the global supply chain issues?

SH: “We’re being told that this is going to go throughout 2022. So what we’ve been doing is working tirelessly to ensure it has minimal impacts on our customers. Agile and nimble are two words that we use a lot here at The Rockport Group — because we have to be. We know there have been delays in the factories because of COVID or blackouts, and the lack of containers. So we’ve started identifying the product collections that we had to deliver, that were most meaningful for our retailers. In addition to that, we’ve been using our consumer insights and testing product throughout this pandemic. We’ve been saying, ‘OK, we think this product is very relevant now, but we can’t just go by a knee-jerk reaction or being in a room with five people where everyone has a different opinion.’ We have to go to our consumer insights, and if the consumers is gravitating to a product, then the onus is on us to make sure we get that product into the marketplace for our valued retailers — but also very importantly, for our consumer.”

Rockport celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. From your perspective, how has the brand changed — or not changed — over the roughly two decades since you first joined?

SH: “One of the reasons I came back to Rockport [four years ago] was the brand equity that it has — its 50 years of the heritage. That hasn’t really changed. What’s been consistent is our comfort style, our technology, our innovation and telling stories. Now, what has changed is that we’re more agile. We’re more nimble. We’re focused on brand strategy, which is really key. We’re focused on consumer insights and ensuring that the consumer speaks. The consumer and our retailers have a say, but it’s always going to be on that solid foundation that this brand has had for many years. We’re not going to divert and go somewhere where we shouldn’t go. But what we want to do is illuminate the brand, create the wow factor and continue doing that with all the attributes that the Rockport brand has.”

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