Rather than splashing out millions on celebrity endorsements or lavish campaigns, footwear label Toms has developed a successful formula, harnessing the power of socially-savvy brand advocates – affectionately called the Toms tribe – who are inspired by a shared sense of social purpose.
Founded by California-based Blake Mycoskie in 2006, the Toms brand is built on its ‘One for One’ mission – to donate one pair of shoes for every pair purchased. The mission was inspired by Mycoskie’s travels around Argentina, where he saw children too impoverished to own shoes and the effect this had on their future development.
Starting out in Mycoskie’s apartment, the brand got off the ground through word-of-mouth endorsements, an important feature of its marketing strategy and the origin of its One Day Without Shoes (ODWS) initiative.
The event was inspired by students at California’s Pepperdine University, who in 2007 decided to go a day without shoes to spark conversation and raise brand awareness. Nine years later ODWS has become an annual event held worldwide each May.
Toms asks its digital community, the Toms tribe, to post a picture of their bare feet on Instagram with the hashtag #WithoutShoes. For every post the brand donates a pair of shoes to a child in need.
“ODWS is a real moment in the Toms calendar,” explains Toms UK marketing manager Sheela Thandasseri. “It’s primarily an engagement campaign to drive awareness and create longer-term connections with customers. When people know what we stand for, they become advocates for life, so being a company founded with a social purpose really resonates.”
This year the social media campaign coincided with events at Toms’ 13 standalone stores worldwide. The UK Toms tribe were asked to join a barefoot photo at its central London flagship, while press and bloggers were invited to take barefoot selfies during an in-store
The brand also worked with its 600 UK stockists to create a buzz around the day, receiving support from big players such as Office and Schuh, with the latter posting its own team barefoot selfie.
As a result of the 2016 event Toms donated 27,435 shoes to children worldwide. ODWS engaged more than 3.5 million people on all social media channels, with the #WithoutShoes hashtag producing 17 million impressions across Toms’ own social platforms and 62 million impressions in total. This engagement was measured using customer experience management platform Sprinklr, which aggregates interactions on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter by campaign. The single day’s activity secured more than 250 media placements.
ODWS is also seen as a good way to attract wholesale accounts. Many independent retailers support the event, including Fabulous Kids in Cornwall, which saw a 1,000% uplift in sales after the owner baked Toms themed cakes and asked all her customers to post on Instagram.
User-generated content is central to the campaign’s success, explains Thandasseri. Along with the Instagram posts, brand fans posted videos documenting their day without shoes, which were hosted on Toms’ YouTube page.
“We love to see user-generated content as it is inspiring for the community. It’s not just on that one day; our customers create social content all the time showing them gifting Toms or wearing them on their wedding day, and they tag us because they want us to be part of it,” she adds.
Mycoskie credits Toms’ affinity with social media with the timing of the brand’s launch in 2006, which coincided with Facebook becoming accessible outside the American collegiate system.
From a strong Facebook base the Toms customer has migrated to Instagram and most recently Snapchat, which the company joined in August 2015. Thandasseri believes Snapchat’s unedited, instant nature appeals to its 3,500 followers in an era where live content is becoming increasingly important.
Although Toms has experimented with paid influencers, the majority of its influencer activity is organic, which Thandasseri believes fits Toms’ grassroots approach to marketing, using the community to tell its story.
“We strive to build authentic ways to share the Toms mission [and] celebrate the unique connection with our tribe“
Living the social purpose
Over the past decade, Toms has expanded into eyewear, bags and ethical coffee, tying in its
‘One for One’ positioning with charitable activity relating to each business sector.
The brand collaborates with more than 100 ‘giving partners’, non-profit, humanitarian organisations with expertise in poverty alleviation and international development, such as Save the Children and UNICEF.
Initiatives with these partners, have resulted in donations of more than 60 million pairs of shoes worldwide, restoring sight to over 400,000 people, providing over 335,000 weeks of safe water and supporting birth services for more than 25,000 mothers since 2006.
These high profile partners also act as advocates, with groups such as Save the Children supporting ODWS and sharing content on the success of programmes.
Basing its overall marketing strategy on a mixture of “social purpose and product”, Toms also uses social media to share new season imagery, which it supports by working with retailers to host high street window displays.
Since being “scrappy and resourceful” are part of the brand’s DNA, Toms endeavours to use funds efficiently. Although the company aired a TV commercial in the US last year, it rarely uses traditional media and is yet to introduce TV advertising to the UK.
“While we’re not ruling out TV advertising as we know it would help us reach a larger audience, we try to be as efficient with our marketing investments as possible,” explains Thandasseri.
“Overall, we strive to build authentic ways to share the Toms mission, celebrate the unique connection with our tribe and empower them to spread the word.”
This marketing strategy is aligned with the sponsorship of quirky, small-scale events such as independent festival Bushstock, which took place in Shepherd’s Bush, west London in June. Toms has hosted the festival’s Secret Garden Stage for the past five years, supporting independent music label and festival organiser Communion Music.
Toms ensures it teams up with like-minded brands, such as Karma Cola, which sells its fairtrade drinks in Toms’ London flagship store. Thandasseri believes the consumer appreciates this kind of authentic collaboration, done in the characteristic ‘Toms way’.
2006 – Toms founded in California
2007 – One Day Without Shoes becomes an annual event
2011 – Toms launches eyewear
2014 – Toms Roasting Co is established
2015 – Toms unveils bag collection