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While its fashions have always been distinctively informal, Converse’s brand associations have ebbed and flowed. Founded in 1908, it first made its rebellious streak known in 1913 with a vow to be “independent enough not to follow every other company in every thing they do”. Converse was synonymous with basketball in the mid-20th century, but its shoes were also worn by cultural icons such as Elvis Presley and James Dean, and from the 1970s punk bands such as the Ramones made them a symbol of defiance.
However, in the following decades the money in the American ‘sneaker’ market was in sports shoes, and Converse’s market share was swallowed up by competitors such as Nike and Adidas. In 1992, basketball star Magic Johnson accused Converse of being “stuck in the Sixties and Seventies”.
Converse filed for bankruptcy in 2001, but was quickly reborn as an icon of countercultural youth and in the past decade has again become the chosen footwear of gig-goers.
Converse UK senior marketing director Cheryl Calegari says: “The consumer doesn’t necessarily understand the economics of going into bankruptcy. The brand has been consistent. We are very privileged to be a part of these generational moments. You could call it edgy or evolution. Converse continues to be embraced by optimistic rebels.”
She adds that rebellion in itself is not what Converse stands for. Calegari instead defines an optimistic rebel as “anyone who chooses their own path”. But now the white toe-caps of the brand’s Chuck Taylor design are almost ubiquitous, with even celebrity baby Harper Seven Beckham photographed wearing them.
The brand has sought to serve its niche consumers by sustaining its influence in grassroots music. It sponsors monthly gigs at the 100 Club in London – the Oxford Street venue that helped launch punk rockers the Sex Pistols – which earned it Music Week magazine’s partnership of the year award.
It also owns Rubber Tracks, a New York recording studio that upcoming musicians can apply to use free of charge. Calegari claims Converse is not trying to piggy-back on the success of any artists that emerge from these ventures, but is widening access to those experiences to young musicians and fans.
Converse is not just targeting the music scene. Verdict Research retail analyst Honor Westnedge says: “It has seen huge growth over the past few years and has expanded its range of designs and colours. It has had a lot of marketing help from celebrities buying their shoes. It was a teen brand, but now you see children and their parents wearing them.”
Chasing mass-market adoption has often been the trigger for brands losing their edge. If Converse wants to avoid this, it will need to maintain a unique appeal among the smaller groups of consumers that make it look cool.