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Children are our future

Children are our future

How kids are helping Crocs, the world’s weirdest shoe, crack the Middle East market.

September 8, 2008 8:25 by

Adam Grundey

Crocs are weird. It’s a fact. In case you haven’t seen a pair of shoes from this “lifestyle company” before, they look – at least in the classic, original style – like plastic clogs. With a strap. And holes. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were handed out to people with some kind of exotic medical condition.

The company itself knows that Crocs are not the most aesthetically pleasing product, which is why its US advertising campaign began with the word, “Ugly.” It followed that, however, with “…is beautiful.” How do they reckon that?

Simple, says Mark Langhammer, Crocs’ regional sales manager for South Asia, the Middle East and developing markets. They may look like they’re made of plastic, but Crocs are – in fact – constructed from a patented material called Croslite, a closed-cell material designed to eliminate odor and absorb dirt.

“We’re bringing functionality to footwear,” says Langhammer. “Along with fashion and fun. Crocs are all about extreme comfort, ease of maintenance and affordability.” Those three factors are where the brand’s beauty lies.

And it seems consumers around the world have seen through the ugly exterior. Crocs was founded in 2002. In 2003, the company shifted 70,000 pairs of shoes. In 2007, it sold 50 million for an impressive $852m in revenue. In the process, Crocs has become a “cool” brand – at least in the West. Several Hollywood celebrities have (without payment or free gifts) sung the shoes’ praises to the press and Langhammer describes Crocs’ age demographic as “ranging from little kids at two years old, to older kids of 102. Which is pretty unique in the industry.”

Regional rethink. Coming into the Arab world, however, meant a change in Crocs’ marketing strategy. The company entered the Middle East 18 months ago, following much the same plan as it had elsewhere. Since Crocs are – as Langhammer says – such a “sensorial product,” it’s vital that the brand gives consumers the chance to actually try them out. So instead of investing in above-the-line advertising, Crocs concentrates most of its efforts on PR and grass-root events. In Dubai, it sponsored the Rugby Sevens, and had a stall where it allowed people to trade in their shoes for a pair of Crocs for the day. Despite such smart efforts, however, it quickly became apparent that adults in the region – particularly Indians and Arabs – weren’t enamored with the brand.

“Crocs are very strong with the Westerners here, because they’ve seen them before,” says Michael Brown, managing director of Iqdam International, Crocs’ distributor in the Middle East. “Our challenge here was reaching Indians and Arabs – cultures where adults tend to be much more conservative and far less likely to be the first in their group to try an ostentatious or brightly colored pair of shoes.”

In other markets, adults had been the brand’s early adopters (Crocs were originally conceived as a boating shoe that doesn’t slip, doesn’t mark the deck and allows water to pass through easily). In the Middle East, however, the trailblazers were young kids.

“In most markets, under-12s represent about 25-30 percent of our sales,” says Langhammer. “Here, it’s more like 50 percent. The kids have been our primary market.”

And the kids have helped convince their parents that it’s OK to wear Crocs, something the brand didn’t really expect, says Brown. “It’s really happened by default,” he explains. “Kids are simply not as self-conscious as adults are – whatever ethnic group they’re from – and they tend to interact with other nationalities far more than adults do. So what happened was, you’ve got all these schools and playgroups with Arabs, Indians and Western kids in them, and the young Western kids would wear their brightly colored Crocs and it’s the young Arabs and Indians who say, ‘I like those. I want some.’

“Then the parents would take the kids along to buy Crocs and figure they might as well try some of the adult sizes on while they’re waiting,” he continues. “And all you have to do with Crocs is try them on to be converted. So we’re entering the other ethnic areas – where there are huge opportunities for us – through the kids. But not because we’re actively targeting kids, the brand’s just so popular with them that it’s spreading to the adults as well.”

Teen troubles. But having young kids lead the way for Crocs in the region hasn’t been all good news, Brown admits. It has created a perception problem with one of the region’s largest consumer segments: teenagers.

“Crocs’ weak area is from ages 12-20 in this region,” Brown says. “Teens will not wear anything that younger kids are wearing. They want to distance themselves from that. Teens are far more concerned about what other people think of them than any other age group.” Meaning Crocs hasn’t really hit it off with this age group.

The company is trying to get around that problem in a number of ways. First of all, by bringing out new styles that “clearly cannot be identified with the children’s models,” Brown says.

It is also adapting its “Jibbitz” – plastic studs that can be pushed into the holes of the shoes, with designs on them such as cartoon characters – for the teen market, Brown says, citing football club badges and Harry Potter designs as two examples that may go down well with teenagers.

Brown also suggests that as more and more adults buy the shoes in the region, Crocs will lose its “kids’ brand” image. We ask whether teens will really be any more attracted to a brand that’s worn by their mum and dad.

“Well, obviously it depends which adults are wearing them,” he says. “If you’ve got opinion leaders wearing them, [teens will be more impressed].”

That’s why Crocs have appointed a handful of brand ambassadors in the region, such as Dubai-based media personality and “life designer” Dave Crane. “He’s a massive Crocs fan,” says Brown. “He’ll help break down barriers between age groups for the brand.”

Unlike the US celebs who big Crocs up in the press, Crane and the other regional “ambassadors” will receive some free shoes, Brown says. “We do give some free ones away here to opinion leaders, but people like [US actors] Ben Affleck and Halle Berry aren’t even getting them for free.

“George Bush is another one,” he continues. “But we try not to mention that too much.” As many have long suspected, a seven-year old can prove more useful than the US president.

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