With a new digital focus and his ambitions for the brand set firmly on the UK market, Sperry president Tom Kennedy is proving that there’s more to boat shoes than sailing.
The story goes that the Sperry boat shoe – with its rounded shape and grip soles – came about after founder Paul Sperry watched his dog run down an icy hill in the early 1930s. Sperry was on the hunt for a non-slip shoe for New England boating trips, and the grooves on the spaniel’s paws sparked an idea. In 1935, the characteristic Sperry grip sole design was born.
Now, 82 years on, Sperry has grown into a global brand that has branched out into sandals, boots, and clothing and accessories for men and women. It operates stores in the US and is sold in 70 countries worldwide, in stockists such as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and on China’s Tmall. In December 2016, Sperry teamed up with agency Zone Two to target the UK market. Its first full season with Zone Two will be spring 18, and the brand has already added John Lewis to its list of 47 stockists, which also includes Asos, Mr Porter, End and The Idle Man.
While the history of the brand is rich, president Tom Kennedy, who took the helm in February, is enthusiastic about the opportunities afforded by the digital world and the modern, rapidly evolving consumer in the US and internationally.
“There are two parts to our business,” he says. “One: how do we protect these styles that have been good to us for more than eight decades? And two: how do we launch new styles and new materials, and have an agenda that keeps the brand relevant?”
In pursuit of these goals, Kennedy is repositioning the brand – taking it from its sailing roots to a broader casualwear setting. He is pushing strongly towards digital – and particularly mobile – as the future of the direct-to-consumer offer. And he is making a push in the UK, where he believes it is “critical” the brand establishes credibility.
Before his role at Sperry, Kennedy was president of clothing and accessories at the brand’s footwear-focused parent company, Wolverine Worldwide. Before that he was executive vice-president of Fossil from 2012 to 2015. He also held roles at Nike and Old Navy. But he is clearly at home at Sperry – when he meets Drapers he is wearing a pair of the original boat shoes in two-tone leather, and claims to have worn the style regularly since his college days.
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He is adamant that everything Sperry does should both align with its heritage and innovate: “There’s a privilege to a heritage brand, but you have to make sure the heritage doesn’t become a box. You have to transcend that.”
Wolverine Boston Group – the division of Wolverine Worldwide that includes Sperry in its portfolio, along with fellow footwear and clothing brands Keds and Saucony – reported revenues of $221.7m (£165.1m) for the 13 weeks to 1 July 2017. The Boston Group’s revenue for the year to 31 December 2016 was $889.4m (£662.3m), compared with $942.8m (£717.6m) in 2015. Operating profit was $121.7m (£90.7m) – down from $132.9m (£101.2m) in 2015.
The drop was attributed to a decrease in wholesale demand for Sperry and Saucony. Wolverine does not break down the exact figures for individual brands, but Kennedy says Sperry “does several hundred million dollars a year”.
Kennedy defines the Sperry offer in three categories: Gold Cup premium, hand-crafted footwear; the core Topsider business, which includes the classic boat shoe; and performance sailing shoes for professionals, which still form part of the business and are mainly sold through dedicated marine chandlery stores. Sperry’s connection to the sailing world remains, and the brand is an official partner of the America’s Cup yacht race.
Despite its long heritage, Kennedy is evolving the brand, and digital and international development are core strategic focuses. He is spearheading a repositioning of Sperry for the modern consumer to ensure its offer is relevant across international markets and infrastructure is ready for the digital world.
“Sperry is navigating a digital landscape that has emerged in a dramatically different shape from how it was when I started my career,” he explains. “In the US it is estimated that one in four of all pairs of shoes is sold digitally. At Sperry we’re already above that, so we know our customer base is very technologically proficient.”
Part of this evolution involves ensuring Sperry’s logistics are properly prepared. For Kennedy, this means speed: “It’s not just the customer that moves at the pace of digital – the supply chain does, too.
“Our obligation is to create an operating platform that moves product more quickly. We have to do all we can to facilitate it moving faster.”
Kennedy singles out UK sites such as Net-a-Porter and its menswear counterpart, Mr Porter, for their forward-thinking approach to digital, and praises their ability to combine brand image and rich content to create more experiential ecommerce. It is something he believes is core to Sperry’s future: “You need to figure out a way to make your digital shopping experience interactive and experience led.”
He is seeking to strengthen Sperry’s image with content geared towards digital consumers, and says the brand needs to make a visual impact. More than half of Sperry’s initial customer contact occurs on a mobile phone, so marketing assets will be designed mobile first, to ensure that the best imagery can be communicated quickly on a small screen.
Defining Sperry’s image is a preoccupation for Kennedy, and an idea he returns to time and time again in relation to different aspects of the business, beyond simply online communications.
When he joined the company, his remit was to transform Sperry from a footwear brand to a lifestyle brand. However, this is not about expanding the product range: “For me, being a lifestyle brand is asking: ‘How do we become part of the customers’ lives?’ We want to be the brand you go to for casual footwear, regardless of what you’re wearing that day. I don’t think it’s about making every single product with the Sperry logo on it.”
Brand identity is key: “Our big opportunity is to take the core business and show it in a variety of different ways. We’re working through the process of defining the visual language that allows us to play a larger role in people’s wardrobes and lives.”
This has resulted in a shift away from the brand’s typical nautical imagery: “We don’t have a visual identity that I would call ‘urban’ – it’s not shown in a city often enough. That’s a big opportunity, to show people how to wear it.” For the UK especially, carving out a more city-friendly identity is key.
“Not everyone who wears our boat shoes wears them on a boat,” Kennedy jokes. “We need to give it a context in international markets, particularly in the UK, so that we can seize that opportunity.”
Kennedy views the UK as “more of a street-style marketplace” and says the brand needs to give its footwear a context that is right for the market.
His focus on image in the UK is justified. One former stockist told Drapers the brand had not held its own against competitors such as Lacoste and Fred Perry, which he said had a “stronger brand value among our customers”.
Although Kennedy estimates that around 90% of Sperry’s sales currently come from the US, he says: “The UK is one market we’ve identified as being critical. The world looks to the UK for brand credibility. We need to have that credibility here to be a dominant player.”
Teaming up with Zone Two is part of this strategy.
“The business that we took over was really stable,” says Matt Thomas, the brand manager for Sperry at the agency. “Season on season, we’ll look to grow its footprint. Sperry appeals to a customer who appreciates hand-crafted and well-made product, and appreciates sophisticated, classic styling. The Authentic Originals 2-Eye Boat Shoe is the brand’s biggest seller, followed by the CVO [circular vamp Oxford] and the Captain’s Oxford.”
“It’s a perfect fit for us as it’s a ‘best in show’ brand,” says Thom Scherdel, buyer at The Idle Man. “It’s at the apex of its category and is renowned for being the original and best boat shoe. We don’t buy any other boat shoes, as we like to simplify our offer by only offering the finest products. In sales terms, it’s consistent through the spring and autumn seasons.”
Within the UK, developing an ecommerce site is another focus. Currently there is no Sperry site that ships to the UK, but Kennedy is determined to perfect the brand storytelling for the market before setting up a UK site.
Thomas tentatively slates a transactional UK site launch for late 2018, to time with the brand’s new campaign messaging.
Kennedy’s global plans for Sperry are ambitious, but as the casualisation of the footwear market continues, he is positioning the brand to take advantage of consumers’ increasing appetite for everyday footwear.
“We want to be part of your wardrobe at every stage of your life and every stage of the day,” he says. “Wherever people wear casual clothing, we want to be their casual footwear choice.”
“I am a caretaker of a heritage brand,” he explains. “This is not my brand. This is a brand that existed before me and will exist after my time. My opportunity is to write a good couple of chapters in the period I have the privilege to run it.”