Geoff Cottrill: How Converse got to 30 million likes on Facebook

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Geoff Cottrill, Chief marketing officer, Converse

Geoff Cottrill,
Chief marketing officer, Converse

When Geoff Cottrill took over as CMO in 2007, Converse was in the doldrums. Its market share hovered in the single digits. Long the default sneakers of the hipster set, the shoemaker has since seen its profile explode. One quick metric: 31 million and counting. That’s how many people have liked its Facebook page. By contrast, Converse’s parent company, Nike, has 9.5 million likes despite a much larger advertising budget and customer base. How did Cottrill create such a strong connection to the brand? He discusses his tactics here. Chief among them: Celebrate the customers, not the company.

Thirty million Facebook fans don’t just show up overnight. What was the strategy that led to such a robust community?

A couple of years ago someone ran into my office and said, “Oh my God, we have 6 million Facebook fans! What are we going to do?” I said, “We’re not going to do anything. We’re going to listen and learn, and then we’re going to figure out how to engage.” So we did that for a while and our Facebook population and community continued to grow and over time it became pretty clear that the consumers actually wanted us to engage with them.

How did you do that?

We started by asking what they wanted to hear from us. Some said they wanted to hear about other people who love Converse, which was what was already taking place. There were literally thousands of photographs of people who just wrote captions like, “I love my Converse. I love my Chucks.” So we helped fuel and facilitate that sentiment. I guess my advice would be that you have to realize that you’re a person in the room, a part of the conversation. Be honest, be clear, be engaging —those are the basics. It’s not any different than if you were to walk into a dinner party 30 minutes late. If you announced, “Listen, I’m going to tell you what’s up, this is all about me,” the chances are pretty good that you’d be either kicked out of the dinner party or no one would want to talk to you. We don’t bust into a crowded room and just start yelling and telling people about ourselves. We do it in a conversational manner. We take that approach every single day.

Why is it important for a footwear and apparel company to have a strong social media presence?

The digital world and social media allow people to turn themselves into brands. If you give them the right kind of experiences and have the right kind of interactions in the social media space, but also in the real world, they will speak on your behalf. There’s no more powerful endorsement than a friend endorsing something to another friend. It’s a whole heck of a lot more effective than any ad that anybody in marketing could make.

What’s the biggest change in marketing since you worked at places like Starbucks, Coke and Procter & Gamble?

It used to be that we’d spend millions of dollars to create these great, big campaigns and buy massive amounts of time on TV events and we would yell out our message. We would just do that over and over again until two or three months in, we wore you down and then you knew exactly what it was that we wanted you to know. That was the old world. Now, people are having conversations about you right this very minute on social media and you can either just let it happen or you can engage in it. So it’s gone from broadcasting messages to building a world of advocates. People will either advocate for you or against you—depending on what kind of experiences you give them. If you have the right kind of interaction, they’ll speak on your behalf.

There must be a great temptation to continually course correct when 30 million people are offering suggestions. Do you have guiding principles to keep your bearings?

We have a couple of core marketing principles. First, we try to celebrate our audience and not ourselves. A lot of marketers and a lot of brands have a hard time not speaking. We’re fortunate that we’ve got a pretty big group of advocates saying really nice things about us. So the question is how do we celebrate them and their love for our brand versus telling them what they should think? Second, we try to be useful. One example: we opened a recording studio in Brooklyn [The Converse Rubber Tracks studio opened in summer 2011]. Some of our core consumers are musicians and they told us loud and clear that they didn’t have access to good recording studios. So we said, “Okay, let’s open a recording studio and allow you to have a platform.” We had almost 300 artists come in the first 11 months of operation and every time one of them had a good experience, they used their social network to say nice things about us. And as a result, our social network gets bigger and bigger.

You opened a play space for influential customers? Or is it more than that?

I’ll give you an example of how this brings all of our marketing principles together: our “3 Artists, 1 Song” collaboration series. We work with three established artists who don’t know each other, who have never met in most cases. We give them studio time to record a song and have fun. We shoot a full music video. We release the track just like a record label would, but we give the track away on our site, through social media and through the artist. So we bring people together, celebrate our audience and we try to be useful by providing them the opportunity to create something. And it’s our own platform. It’s not something that we sponsor. We had Mark Foster, from Foster the People and an artist named A-Trak do a track a month ago. They had never met before. As a result A-Trak opened for Foster the People’s summer tour, which is a pretty interesting outcome. Before that we did the Gorillaz, Andre 3000 and James Murphy. Three people who’ve never met before, never really worked together before and they went in the studio, had a blast and cut a great track.

Is this the end of corporate sponsorships for Converse?

I had a fair amount of experience doing sponsorships at Starbucks and Coke. There are sponsorship opportunities that are good for brands, but in many cases when you sponsor something, you’re paying money and then the rights’ holders are telling you what you can and can’t do because you’re borrowing their equity. A lot of times you sponsor a big music festival or something and then you’re told, “Okay, you can set up your tent over here in the corner.” I’m not saying we don’t do any of that, but I’d much prefer to spend our money on developing our own proprietary things that we can own, we can control and where we can actually respond to consumers’ desires a lot faster.

So in an era where consumers are wresting control of the brand, this is one way for you to maintain a bit of control?

We might own our brand, but it’s our consumers who lead us to places that are interesting. Every single day creative ideas are coming from them. With this idea of creating a recording studio, a lot of my label friends asked, “So you’re going to own the rights to the music”? And I answered, “No, why would we do that? Our core business is footwear and apparel. Period. We?re not a record company.” So we’re not going to start a record label. We make footwear and apparel and we should stay focused on what we do.

The basic element of marketing is figuring out who you are as a product and a brand, really getting an understanding of your consumers and then communicating to them in a way that’s meaningful. That will build trust and a relationship over time. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing all that, although some would say in non-traditional ways.

What role does data play in all this?

We’re looking at data every single day. We’ve done a lot of research, we’ve got brand-tracking studies in place all over the world and we’re constantly checking in and learning from the data. It never stops. You don’t just do research once and then think, “Great, we have the answers.” Because it changes. We do quant, we do qual and we use social media to ask questions where we get some pretty interesting answers. And we listen. But, you have to constantly be open-minded and can’t think that just because you had the answer yesterday or last week that you’re going to have it next month.

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