Can Dr Martens get to grips with urban chic?

Dr Martens is planning to become a wardrobe staple again by updating its products and relaunching as an urbanwear brand. Caroline Parry reports

Dr Martens is determined to kick down the door of fickle fashion and avoid the fate of becoming a heritage brand – a tough proposition in an industry that swiftly forgets what was once “cool” if it’s no longer at the cutting edge of this season’s style.

Some fashion brands have clawed their way back from the bottom of the fashion pile, such as Levi’s, Pringle of Scotland and Gucci, and Dr Martens owner R Griggs is aiming to follow in their footsteps. It is planning a global relaunch for the iconic footwear brand adopted by punks, skinheads, grungers, gays and students alike in decades past.

Leagas Delaney has been appointed to handle what is the brand’s first major overhaul since the Sixties (MW last week). Observers say Dr Martens failure to innovate and offer products that tap into current trends is to blame for its waning popularity. One agency executive calls it “an irrelevant brand”, while other commentators point out that its strong British heritage has been eroded by outsourcing the manufacturing to Malaysia in 2000.

David Burrows, director of qualitative research at consultancy company Flamingo, says: “Dr Martens was so bound up with Britishness and style tribes that it was really battered by the rising popularity of black culture. The problem for Dr Martens is it is about one type of shoe.”

That’s the problem Levi’s faced in the early to mid-Nineties. It had become synonymous with 501 jeans, despite the other ranges it manufactured. “Levi’s took its eye off the ball,” says Burrows. “It lost sight of where fashion was going and how relevant 501s were to that. But rather than relaunch 501s, it brought a new type of product, the Engineered Jean aimed at urban youth, to the market.”

Tristan Rice, director of agency Red Media, which has a number of premium fashion brands on its client list, argues that a fashion brand which has enjoyed popularity but fallen out of favour needs to evolve both the brand and the product rather than change completely. “The challenge for a heritage brand is to take elements of what it is known for and take them forward,” he says. “But it is much harder to do that than start a brand from scratch.”

Knitwear brand Pringle of Scotland has proved how heritage can be turned into a selling point as long as it is kept relevant. It has returned to its roots as a glamorous knitwear label rather than as a label for golf clothing only.

Pringle UK managing director Kim Winser says she had to refocus the brand but make sure that she stayed true to its heritage. “You can paint a new picture of a brand with marketing but if it does not reflect what is happening in the company, it will only be a facade,” she says.

Pringle’s new advertising campaign features Sophie Dahl posing in the style of a Fifties’ sex kitten to appeal to fashion-conscious consumers (MW January 23). However, Pringle is taking steps not to alienate its golfing clientele – its new Sloane Street store, which opened last week, has a section dedicated to the sport.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty group business director Annika Locket, who has several years’ experience working with Levi’s, says brands with the heritage of Levi’s and Dr Martens should lead markets, not follow them, as that was the secret of their original success. She agrees that heritage is important but adds that if a brand pretends to be something it isn’t, the consumer will see through any campaigns or PR stunts.

Leagas Delaney chief executive Tim Delaney says Dr Martens’ heritage gives the agency something to build on, but that the brand’s future, as with any fashion brand, will rest on positioning and distribution. “It has got to be in retailers such as Offspring so it will be seen,” he says. “If the product is interesting enough and it looks cool, consumers will buy it.”

An agency insider says Dr Martens does not believe that people will stop buying trainers in favour of its boots. Instead it wants to become an additional part of people’s wardrobes.

Dr Martens is understood to be planning to relaunch as a workwear brand in the functional urban clothing and footwear sector, colonised by Caterpillar and Carhartt in recent years. For this, Dr Martens has dug deep to uncover its post-war heritage, when R Griggs first acquired the global rights to the German shoe. Most in the fashion industry, however, probably don’t know this part of the shoe’s history.

Dr Martens is introducing a new strategy internally in early May and new products are expected to be revealed shortly afterwards. The agency insider says: “It would be suicide if Dr Martens forgot its heritage. It is a paradox that both the hard right and protesters on Clapham Common wore the same shoe – but that’s because they inspired confidence and that’s what Dr Martens should take forward.”

If Dr Martens is to stamp its footprint on a new generation, new products and marketing that draws on the brand’s heritage will be vital. But the brand must also be relevant to a new generation of consumers if the boot is to get its bounce back.

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