Timberland is a pragmatic brand. It makes a working man’s boot designed for shoveling New Hampshire’s snow, not climbing Mt. Everest, not clubbing. While the company has long engaged in sustainable practices (like offering employees 40 paid hours each year for community service activities), sustainable messaging has not been a part of their communication strategy, and it didn’t need to be until recently because sales were strong. Its products were adopted as the fashion statement of choice among hip-hop artists, and product sales boomed among urban populations. When sales are strong, a company often does not think to spend much time looking inward. When fashion took its inevitable move someplace else, away from boots and bling toward skinny jeans and Converse sneakers, the company was caught unaware. Sales tanked, and the company’s stock suffered a comparable decline.
Thus, the story of how sustainability turned a brand around. Christmas was coming and the company was frantic to develop something-anything- that would sell. It settled on the Earthkeeper, a boot with recycled content as their next new thing. Macy’s displayed it with big used tires and other neato recycled ware, and the thing actually sold pretty well. It was time for a change.
From the sale of that first eco-shoe, Timberland has been on a journey to restructure the face of the company as well as the products it sells. It hasn’t all been chocolate and roses, as Mike Harrison, Chief Brand Officer at Timberland, shared with the audience during a keynote at Sustainable Brands and a follow up interview with Triple Pundit staff:
Sustainability as a “gift with purchase”
Timberland’s biggest lesson is that its customers, despite being very interested in the recycled content of its products are not really keen to dive deep into sustainability when it gets time consuming. They want a solid, fashionable shoe at a good price, and if it has green components, that’s a bonus. Harrison estimates that 80-90% of Timberland’s consumers care mostly just about green rubber, recycled tires, and how much tree planting the company does, and don’t care to go too much more in depth than that.
Timberland’s first forays into sustainable marketing, according to Harrison, came across as being earnest and preachy. The company experimented with ad campaigns like “tread lightly,” and “what kind of footprint will you leave” which were big winners internally, but fell flat with customers. Timberland customers prefer a funny and feelgood ad like this one.
Despite the fact that the majority of Timberland’s stakeholders are not hard-core greenies – Harrison is still mindful of the 10-20% who care deeply. Timberland’s extensive CSR report and materials research is available for the activists and NGOs. They aren’t the bulk of Timberland consumers, but if they don’t like what they see, they will certainly be loud about it, it’s important to also be rigorous and appeal to them because they influence the other 80%.
Be transparent about commercial motives
Harrison calls the Timberland approach “enlightened self interest” and says this resonates strongly with consumers. When Timberland joined BICEP and started speaking out in favor of an international climate deal during the COP15 talks, they were transparent about their motives. As a boot company, cold weather is good for its bottom line, and it was easy for the customers to understand and support their involvement. Previous campaigns about Darfur, which were areas of personal passion for Timberland employees were met with confusion or suspicion by consumers. They didn’t get that it was purely altruistic- the right thing to do- and were worried that Timberland had interests in Darfur that they weren’t being straight up about
The alignment of the brand with climate policy made perfect sense from a cause marketing point of view, and in turn the company was able to get traction with policy makers and the general public alike. Here’s the clip:
Timberland has big plans to keep innovating on the sustainability of its products. The new Earthkeeper 2.0 is designed for recycling, with an embedded thread that aids quick dis-assembly with one tug. Harrison spoke dreamily about the possibility of incorporating take back programs for their boots, incentivizing customer recycling and creating refurbished shoes for re-sale. He acknowledged that this move will require a lot of education for customers around re-use, as the customer base is pretty attached to the concept of newness, and weary of wearing old shoes. Harrison seems up to the challenge of telling that story in a way that resonates with his customers.