Sperry President Katherine Cousins on Leading an All-New Team, International Expansion and Its Sustainable Shoe Launch

It’s not often you could associate a near-century old company with newness, but there’s plenty of it at Sperry — starting at the top with global brand president Katherine Cousins.

The industry veteran, who spent a majority of her career at Timberland, joined Sperry in May 2021. Most recently, Cousins served as the VP and GM of Kodiak, Terra and Work Authority at VF Corp, a position she held for more than three years.

Alongside Cousins on her leadership team is Elizabeth Drori, the brand’s chief marketing officer, who assumed the role in November 2020, and Sean McDowell, who joined as its SVP of product creation in June 2020.

Under her leadership, Cousins said she’d like to see evolution at Sperry, which includes a modernization of the brand and a push to make it more stylish and inclusive. Also, there will be a stronger focus on sustainability, most notably through its SeaCycled footwear range made with recycled and eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes.

Sperry SeaCycled
A look at Sperry’s eco-friendly SeaCycled shoes.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sperry

Beyond modernization, the exec is focused on several other opportunities she expects to pay off, including a focus on bolstering Sperry’s presence internationally and recruiting new consumers through consistent brand storytelling.

Below, Cousins talks leading an all-new team, international opportunities and her vision for the company.

You’re almost at the one-year mark in your new role. What have you learned about Sperry?

“It’s an amazing brand. I knew of Sperry coming in, of course, because I’ve been in the industry for a long time, but I didn’t have a great sense for the heritage. It’s an 87-year-old brand, it’s been worn by the Kennedys, it’s been worn by Paul Newman — it’s been worn by everyone. I had a sense of it from sort of the preppy handbook days, but the work that the team has done has really been evolving the brand. To me, that was really exciting because the work was sort of in its naissance when I joined, this whole idea of modern prep. We have this new team [McDowell and Drori] that we’re starting to put their fingerprints on the direction — more modern, more stylish, more inclusive — so I felt very lucky to be joining this amazing team that had this heritage brand but was taking this cool new direction.”

What opportunities does having a team that is also new offer?

“There’s a lot of newness at corporate, too. [Wolverine Worldwide has] a new CEO who just started in January, Brendan Hoffman, so I think there’s a lot of open to listen on doing things differently. Wolverine has great brands, but we are at a moment in our lives, in our company trajectory, where we can supercharge the growth. It feels very exciting to be part of a moment where a lot of new people are coming in, new leadership, great skills and we can step on the gas.”

What made Sperry the right landing spot for you? 

“I was looking to be a brand president as my next step, and I wanted to work at a great brand. I knew of Sperry as a great brand, but I wasn’t clear on where it was going and what the direction was. I didn’t have a sense for these two [McDowell and Drori], although I completely stalked them on LinkedIn — they were obviously key partners in the process. This was the exact right opportunity. And it’s a chance to remake the direction. It had a really tough pandemic two years, as you can imagine, from a lifestyle brand perspective as many casual lifestyle brands did, but it’s on an upswing and this team is powering that direction and upswing.”

How would you describe the direction you’d like to take Sperry in?

“We want to evolve it to be much more modern, stylish, inclusive. We feel like it can be global — something like 90% of our sales have been in the U.S. for the entire time that it’s been owned by Wolverine. That is a huge opportunity for us. I came from Timberland, these two [Sean and Elizabeth] from Converse and Nike, so we know the playbook for how to grow brands internationally, and we know that there’s tremendous opportunity for Sperry outside the U.S.”

Where are the greatest areas of opportunity internationally? 

“EMEA [Europe, the Middle East and Africa], for sure. We’re already starting to see double- and triple-digit growth there, small base. And then, of course, China. We have a pretty decent sized business in the Philippines, we have a good distributor there. But I think for the rest of Asia, China is the obvious place for us to step on the gas.”

From a broader perspective, what are the brand’s greatest challenges and areas of opportunity?

“The challenges to me are definitely the macroeconomic context. It’s really hard to get a read on what’s happening from a consumer behavior perspective with inflation and war and all of those things going on. Supply chain also continues to be a really difficult geopolitical challenge that we need to solve, and we’re trying our best to be nimble and agile. And the opportunities are certainly to continue to grow within the U.S. DTC, we talk about digital e-comm and our own stores a lot. That is a place where we own the relationship with the consumer, and we need to do a better job of telling our stories, the amazing products that are coming out of Sean’s team and brand stories coming out of Elizabeth’s team, through DTC. And then we’re also focused on key wholesale partners that are really growing. We talk about with the winners. Who’s doing that? Nordstrom, Dick’s, Academy and others, they’re really doing a great job and that’s where we want to be, as well as Amazon and Zappos. We want to focus on those wholesale partners. International is a medium-term opportunity, we’re going after it now, but it will become meaningful over the medium term given the size that it is now.”

Sperry SeaCycled Captain's Moc Slip On
Sperry SeaCycled Captain’s Moc Slip On for women.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sperry

What separates the Sperry sustainability approach from other brands?

“Sperry is a brand that was born on the water. Our unique place to play and contribute around environmental issues is around the water. Over the past 10, 11 months, we’ve developed what we call a purpose platform, ‘All For Water, Water For All,’ that has both a sustainability component as well as a diversity, equity and inclusion component. On the sustainability side, we’re talking about. product that we’re making, which we call the SeaCycled collection, actions that we’re taking in partnership with Water Keepers Alliance, with our employees on beach cleanup days, how we’re trying to reduce water usage and how we make products — lots of different actions because we want to protect and protect the world’s biggest playground, which is our oceans and waterways.”

How will the SeaCycled program evolve?

“By 2024, we have committed that 50% of the models that we produce will be part of the SeaCycled collection. And we have very strict criteria about what it means to be part of the SeaCycled collection. Think about recycled uppers, recycled PET, recycled outsole, recycled rubber, leathers in terms of lower impact to the environment, reduced water usage. A lot of different criteria goes into the SeaCycled collection, but the key thing from a consumer perspective is that we intend it to be no compromises. Great looking products at a great price point, but it’s better for the environment, and you don’t have to pay more because you’re buying something that is the environment. That’s not a great consumer proposition. And it is only going to expand. It’s not just spring footwear. It’s actually all seasons. We have boots that have recycled PET uppers, so it’s expanding well beyond just spring more natural canvas styles. It’s extending into boots and boat shoes, of course. All categories.”

Sperry SeaCycled Authentic Original Boat Shoe
Sperry SeaCycled Authentic Original Boat Shoe.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sperry

Why did Sperry choose to release a new brand campaign, “Make Waves,” after four years without one?

“We just put our first brand campaign into the market since 2018. It’s amazing, I’m so proud of it, Elizabeth and team did an amazing job. It’s called ‘Make Waves,’ it’s a double entendre to give a nod to the water where we were born, but also to make waves in your life, be who you are, have an impact on the world, be empowered. It’s it shows Sperry in a completely new light: modern still with our preppy heritage but on all different kinds of people. We’re excited to continue to see that evolution and we’ll do a fall spot as well. We haven’t done that in four years.”

Can consumers expect to see campaigns from Sperry with more frequency?

“One of the things that I noticed coming in is that we really needed to recruit new consumers to the brand, we needed to create additional brand desire. We don’t just need to sell more stuff to the same people buying Sperry. We’ve got to broaden the appeal. This amazing brand spot reflects the new modern, preppy, more stylish and inclusive brand ethos that Sperry stands for, which is what we call the new coastal. You really see the heritage, but you also see it in a new light, and we intend to do it every year. Consumers lose interest after a couple of days, you can’t wait four years, and it’s important to continue to tell those stories in new and different ways.”

What would define success for Sperry by the end of 2022?

“We grew 25% last year. I’d like to see us continue to grow at a very healthy clip to cover some of the lost ground from pandemic. Also, telling these great stories. Boat shoes have been a really nice trend, it’s awesome to have that tailwind because boat shoes are obviously core what we do, we own that market, more than 70% share. We need to get more people wearing boat shoes. If we can grow the boat market overall and continue to capture share, that would be a win. And to be as good a partner to our retail partners in terms of delivering products on time, that would also be a win because it’s been tough for the past two years.”

Access exclusive content