Despite its traditional image, Clarks has an up-to-date marketing strategy which targets the parents of one-year-olds. The scheme, Toddler Team, aims to build customer loyalty right from the purchase of a first pair of shoes.

Innovative, cutting edge, up-to-the-minute” – hardly words you’d associate with Clarks shoes. But a new loyalty scheme launched by Clarks International in July does fit the description. The scheme, which targets parents of one-year-olds ready for their first shoes, is called the Toddler Team and forms part of the company’s strategy to stem the stream of defections to rival brands.

In recent years, Clarks has been forced down the road of change to defend its position in the over-supplied UK shoe market. The company, founded in 1825, was run by a feuding family and was subject to swathes of redundancies and factory closures (one of which was humiliatingly taken over by The Griggs Group which makes Dr Martens). It would have come as no surprise if Clarks had gone the same way as one-time rivals Saxone and Freeman Hardy Willis.

However, with former Kenwood wunderkind Tim Parker in charge since January, the company may well be able to put the shine back on its scuffed shoes.

Toddler Team is Clarks’ latest initiative and targets parents, predominantly through direct mail but also through in-store recruitment. Clarks used the Bounty database to mail parents with information packs and letters inviting them to come to selected shoe stores for a fitting. Once recruited, details are recorded and members of the Toddler Team are given a swipecard which uses electronic point of sale (EPOS) technology to relay purchase information to Clarks.

Clarks now mails parents of approximately 50,000 under-ones each month and, according to advertising manager Hugh Croad, is “extremely pleased” with the recruitment figures.

While it is difficult to say how many have been recruited to the Toddler Team through direct mail alone, it is thought the take-up has been more than 30 per cent. Despite Clarks’ other difficulties, there has always been a strong relationship between its brand and parents and so while the high take up was welcome it was not entirely surprising.

To make the most of this link, Clarks ensured the scheme was rigorously tested. It was tested in 31 outlets in the North-east between November 1995 and May 1996 before it was rolled out to 905 shops across the UK and Eire this summer.

“What we tried to do was make the moment the child bought new shoes a real experience,” says Ted Hart, direct marketing manager for Clarks International. “We used Polaroid cameras and put pictures inside a presentation card. We also did various other things, like giving out cuddly toys. To parents this is a real key day and we wanted to mark that.”

The strategy behind Toddler Team was to lay the foundations for a market intelligence system designed to present all the information the company had on individual customers under a single entry. To do this, Clarks had to combine data that tracked spend patterns with customer information.

“We needed two things,” says Hart. “We wanted a system that would manage direct mail activity and parallel to that we wanted to replace our existing customer service system. It seemed sensible to have every bit of information in one place rather than having two separate systems.”

For many companies with an unwieldy or scattered data storage system, this can be akin to reinventing the wheel. Clarks, however, was able to graft existing customer information from an old computer system onto the new one with the help of software company Fraser Williams (London), which specialises in Consumer Response Systems (CRS).

Previously, Clarks had merely nodded in the direction of customer loyalty with one-off incentive schemes. “The idea of strategic relationship marketing is something that we, as an organisation, have been toying with for quite some time,” says Hart. “The trick was justifying the initial investment and getting someone to develop the software.”

The crucial objective for Clarks now is to keep existing customers for as long as possible. “The Toddler Team is by no means the end of it,” says Hart. “The plan is to add different elements in the scheme to the relationship marketing plan at different ages.”

Although it has focused on one-year-olds, the hopes is that the system will grow to incorporate direct marketing activities in other target groups, such as the ten to 15-year-old market. Clarks has already entered this sector with Bootleg, a standalone brand aimed at adolescents, which would not, according to Croad, look out of place in Smash Hits.

Whether Clarks’ comfortable tweedy image – surely a natural contender in the high-growth grey power sector – can fit snugly alongside club hip remains to be seen. Still, if anoraks, tank tops and Farah trousers are anything to go by, who knows.

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