When it Comes to Your Brand, You Can’t Fake It

Converse CEO Davide Grasso explains how a century-old sneaker company adapts to changing times while remaining true to its values.

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It’s a good time to be a classic — at least in the sneaker business.

After years of high technology dominating fashion in the shoe industry, since 2013 retro styles have taken over the sneaker segment. While analysts have complained of a lack of innovation at shoe companies, changing consumer tastes rather than a true lack of innovation may be to blame. “Even if the brand has great technology, the consumer is voting against that right now,” Matt Powell, an industry analyst with the market-research firm NPD Group, explained in an article on his blog Sneakernomics.

That’s great news for the 109-year-old shoemaker Converse. Since being acquired by Nike after filing for bankruptcy in 2001, the company has posted impressive annual sales growth. While revenue declined slightly in 2016, since 2010 the company has posted an impressive average year-over-year growth rate of 12 percent, according to the statistics aggregator Statista. Today, the company sells 273,000 pairs of the brand’s flagship product, the Chuck Taylor All-Star, every single day says CEO Davide Grasso.

The forerunner to the All-Star was first introduced in 1917. The eponymous basketball legend turned salesman and brand ambassador joined the company six years later, making several tweaks to the design of the shoe. The last major design change came in 1949 — with the introduction of the contrasting black-and-white hightop. In 1957, the brand launched their oxford-style lowtop, and for the next sixty years the shoe has remained pretty much the same.

While All-Stars gradually faded from professional basketball — Wayne “Tree” Rollins was the last player to regularly wear Converse in competition in 1979 — they found a new home in the counterculture scene of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly among rock bands, being sported by musicians like Eddie Veder and Kurt Cobain.

Since the company’s acquisition by Nike more than 15 years ago, the brand has embraced fans’ long-standing tradition of decorating and customizing their shoes. Offering the brand’s iconic canvas top up to artists as a surface for them to create on, sparking collaborations with high-end designers like Commes des Garçons and visual artists including Damien Hirst.

The approachability and adaptability of the brand offers them a unique advantage, according to Grasso, particularly in one area of the industry that has seen tremendous innovation: customization. Grasso likens the flexibility of the brand to a person. “This idea of ‘I can make my shoe even more mine’ actually adds to what our brand values are,” Grasso says. “We see that as an opportunity. The brand, at the end of the day, is a promise. And the promise has to be authentic, has to be real. You can't fake it.”

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