Keds president Chris Lindner tells Drapers how he keeps the 100-year-old sneaker brand relevant to today’s teens and why its message of female empowerment is so important.
Chris Lindner, Keds president
Not many brands take it upon themselves to change the world. But Keds has a mission: it wants to empower girls everywhere, and it has 100 years of history to build on. With its original canvas sneakers, launched in 1916, the US brand sought to give women an alternative to uncomfortable, restrictive high heels. A century on, its aim remains the same: “To allow women to be who they want to be and go where they want to go.”
The Wolverine Worldwide-owned footwear brand plans to use the celebrations of its centenary year to increase its presence in the UK, as well as in other key markets around the world, spreading that message of empowerment. At the centre of this is its twinkly-eyed, neatly dressed American president, Chris Lindner. For Lindner, the empowerment of women is a personal matter: he has a wife and two daughters, while his senior team is largely female, including the chief marketing officer (CMO), Emily Culp, the global creative director, Holly Curtis, and the vice-president (sales), Elaine Dalton.
“To be part of a brand that’s teaching girls they can be everything and go anywhere is exciting to me. It’s so positive,” he tells Drapers.
Keds Champion exotic spring 16
Last July Lindner oversaw the launch of Keds’ “Ladies First Since 1916” campaign, which will sit at the heart of its marketing activity throughout 2016. It features progressive messages that celebrate what it means to be a woman now. The company gathered insights from more than 10,000 women from eight countries, including the UK, when coming up with the slogans, which include: “There’s no such thing as an average girl.” This February, it also announced the formation of the Keds Collective – a group of inspiring women and brand ambassadors, including US actress Allison Williams, musicians Ciara and Tori Kelly and K-pop star Krystal Jung – who are starring in its campaigns.
There has been a shift [in our target market] over the past year and a half
Women have played and still play an important part in Lindner’s life. His love of retailing comes from his mother, who had an independent fashion boutique in the town where he grew up, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“She still loves retail. She’ll send me interesting articles she’s ripped out of magazines,” he says. As a teenager, he worked in a sporting goods shop doing everything from sharpening ice skates to selling shoes – including a lot of Converse (a brand he later worked for). He sold suits in college, and after that his early career was spent in sales and advertising, before he moved into product management and marketing.
Keds 1937 catalogue
He found he was attracted to US heritage brands, enjoying a stint at video game developer Electronic Arts from 1998 to 2000 and more than five years at Nike, including four as vice-president of marketing for its ice hockey subsidiary, Bauer, from 2003 to 2007. Nike had owned Bauer for about eight years by the time he joined.
“It had not focused on the business and it had fallen from a $450m (£307m) dominant category leader in the mid-90s to third or fourth player in the global hockey marketplace,” explains Lindner. “It was a great heritage brand that had lost its way. We were able to revive the business with a renewed focus on a younger core customer, elevation of production innovations, grassroots marketing activation and international expansion of the business.”
Lindner left the Nike brand to join its subsidiary, Converse, as vice-president of global marketing in 2007, staying for three years. In that time, he developed its international marketing strategy, building new teams in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America. He also introduced the brand’s first global brand campaign, “Connectivity”, in more than 100 countries.
Lindner first joined the fold of US footwear brand house Wolverine Worldwide in 2010 as CMO and senior vice-president (SVP) of global sales at Saucony. There, he launched the “Find Your Strong” global campaign platform, which sought to inspire runners. From Saucony he moved to sister brand Sperry Top-Sider, where, as CMO and SVP of business development, he helped the team to refine its consumer focus and reposition the brand to appeal to a broader and younger audience. Five months later, in September 2014, he was promoted to president of Keds.
We’re trying to target the fast fashion twentysomething and then the more discerning customer
An avid runner, skier, golfer and cyclist, Lindner lives the sporty US lifestyle embodied by Keds, although he is far from its core target market. Keds was founded in 1916 as a women’s footwear brand and, today, most of its customers are aged 18 to 34, while pop artist Taylor Swift is a longstanding brand ambassador.
There are no plans to change its focus any time soon, Lindner says: “If you look across the market and see who’s out there, there is still a gap in the women’s market. Keds uses different lasts and silhouettes, making them a little more refined overall. It’s 100% focused on women.”
It does carry some product for men, but this is small part of the business: there are only 38 men’s options available on Keds.com, out of a total of 395. Equally, the kids’ offer “is not as relevant in Europe”, says Lindner, who declines to provide the split of sales. He is confident that the opportunity to expand lies in focusing on women’s shoes, whose wholesale prices start at £14.58.
The brand was born after the US Rubber Company decided to consolidate its 30 footwear brands under one name. It chose the name Peds, from the Latin word for “foot”, but another firm held the trademark, so it was changed to Keds. The original shoe design, the Champion, was the first mass-marketed canvas-top sneaker. It has maintained the same simple aesthetic throughout the years, including the recognisable rubber sole, canvas upper and little blue label. There are easy comparisons to be made between Keds and other sneaker brands such as Vans – which is relatively young at 50 years old – and Converse, but its feminist ideals are a marked point of difference.
Keds fits our age group. It’s got a youthfulness about it. It’s definitely one to watch
Colin Temple, Schuh
Schuh’s managing director, Colin Temple, says: “Keds is an iconic American brand, and we’ve carried it for many years. Converse is a bigger brand and has had more traction, but that’s not to say Keds can’t be like that; it’s a smaller business and the heritage may not be as in-your-face, but it has a niche.
“It’s much more a feminine brand for us, but, having said that, there’s no reason the silhouette couldn’t do both – it’s a unisex article. Brands are very mercurial – you never know what will happen – but we like it. It fits our age group. It’s got a youthfulness about it. It’s definitely one to watch.”
Around the world, the brand is at different stages of evolution. In the UK, it moved into two Topshop stores – on Oxford Street and in Westfield Stratford City – at the end of March, and into Topshop’s Selfridges concession on May 5. The company would not provide stockist numbers, but its key multiple accounts in the UK are Topshop, Schuh, Asos, Oasis and Debenhams, and it is stocked in a number of independents, as well as selling online. The transactional site launched in 1999, but Keds would not give an indication of how big a slice of its sales are now made online.
Keds Dirty Dancing sneakers
Keds has renewed its collaborations with Oasis and Liberty for autumn 16, in an attempt to broaden its market.
“We’re trying to target the fast fashion twentysomething and then the more discerning customer,” Lindner explains. “Be who you want to be, go where you want to go is a message that translates across all age groups. There has been a shift [in our target market] over the past year and a half. Taylor Swift has worked for the 15-to-19 demographic, but as that has gained momentum we have been working on adding dimensions, thinking about our customer in a very different way. It’s much more about a strong role model. We still work with Taylor Swift on a range of product, but we need to age up and edge up the brand.”
A lot of people here don’t know Keds. They don’t know Audrey Hepburn wore our shoes
Oasis brand director Sarah Welsh says: “We felt the collaboration was a natural step, as their classic, stylish and timeless values resonate incredibly well with our customer. Its femininity and colour also appealed.”
The company will not provide UK figures. However, Lindner emphasises that this is a “key market” despite some of its challenges. “Retail is difficult at the moment, so it’s tough to break through. People are struggling, and they’re controlling inventory like you have never seen, so you’re fighting for shelf space. But we have to be relevant in the UK. Customers look to influencer markets such as London. It’s going to take a commitment – big investments in PR, social media and time.”
He adds: “A lot of people here don’t know Keds. They don’t know Audrey Hepburn wore our shoes, or that ours is the original performance sneaker. As we’ve told our story, it has opened doors like Topshop’s. The product is right and the messaging is inspirational.”
Wolverine does not break its sales down by brand. The group’s full-year revenue was reported to have fallen by 2.5% to $2.7bn (£1.8bn) for the year ended January 2, against the year before. It put this down to an “incredibly volatile” fourth quarter, during which global economic pressures worsened, holiday sales were “tepid” and unseasonably warm weather had an impact on many regions. The company said it expected the global retail environment to remain “challenging” in 2016, owing in part to an overhang of inventory and the slowdown in China.
1963 Keds advertisement
But Lindner says China is a big growth market for Keds.
“The product and messaging has been right for this market. They are fans of western culture and Krystal [Jung] has helped to drive interest.” He expects to open more than 300 new stores in China over the next two years, with a distribution partner. He also plans to grow the brand in the rest of Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America. “In Asia Pacific, our direct-to-consumer business has more than quadrupled. Key markets such as Japan, Korea and China – we’re outselling some of our competitors there.”
Meanwhile, in the UK and US, the 100th birthday celebrations will continue throughout the year. A new product or collection will be launched in its various markets “pretty much every month” to celebrate various aspects of the brand. It will collaborate with each of its partners across 10,000 points of retail globally.
If he can keep the product relevant, broaden its range and target market, and maintain that inspirational messaging, Lindner may well achieve his aim of making Keds the most coveted sneaker brand in the world.
Keds: 100 years of fame and fortune
- 1916 – Started with a $1 pair of sneakers in 1916
- 1938 – Launches a line of high-heeled shoes for women, known as the Kedetts
- 1940 – Athletic men’s sub-brand Pro-Keds is born
- 1950s – Keds are sported by icons including Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn
- 1969 – Yoko Ono gets married to John Lennon wearing a pair of Keds
- 1976 – The Ramones wear Keds on their debut album cover
- 1987 – Jennifer Grey dances in Keds White Champions in Dirty Dancing
- 1991 – Demi Moore is the voice of Keds TV campaign
- 1999 – Keds launched online
- 2012 – Taylor Swift becomes global brand ambassador for Keds
Chris Lindner’s CV
- September 2014 – present: president, Keds
- April 2014 – August 2014: CMO and SVP business development, Sperry Top-Sider
- September 2010 – April 2014: CMO and SVP global sales, Saucony
- September 2007 – September 2010: vice-president, global marketing, for Converse
- 2003 – September 2007: vice-president, marketing, for Bauer Hockey
- April 2002 – August 2003: director of brand content and partnerships, Nike
- 2000 – 2003: director of brand marketing and new business development, 800.com
- 1998 – 2000: director of product marketing, Electronic Arts (EA Sports)
- 1995 – 1998: brand and product marketing (various), Rollerblade Inc