Ready to Rally

With a re­newed fo­cus and an atyp­i­cal brand mes­sage, her­itage ten­nis la­bel K-Swiss is back in full swing.

Footwear News - - CONTENTS - By Peter Verry

A unique col­lab and a re­turn to its roots have helped K-Swiss recharge.

HOW DOES A ONCE-HOT BRAND WIN OVER new cus­tomers af­ter los­ing its way? In the com­pet­i­tive ath­letic mar­ket­place, for K-Swiss pres­i­dent Bar­ney Wa­ters, the an­swer is by re­turn­ing to the com­pany’s roots.

When he as­sumed the role in 2016, Wa­ters — the for­mer chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer of K-Swiss Global Brands — was tasked with re­viv­ing the fal­ter­ing la­bel. Among his ma­jor moves, the leader chose to res­ur­rect its ten­nis her­itage, which had been pushed aside to fo­cus on more pop­u­lar prod­uct cat­e­gories such as per­for­mance run­ning.

“Even though the ten­nis busi­ness is not very large, K-Swiss’ strong tra­di­tion of per­for­mance ten­nis gives them au­then­tic­ity and cred­i­bil­ity,” ex­plained Matt Pow­ell, se­nior sports in­dus­try ad­viser with The NPPDrxG­drx­o­sup­prtIn­ngc’.19

Also, Wa­ters in­staxll­teMd talxm­noFdx­es­rhn­tob­n­raWnedek po­si­tion: sell­ing K-Swiss as a com­pany that makes sneak­ers for en­trepreneurs. To pro­mote the fresh mes­sag­ing, he brought in an un­likely col­lab­o­ra­tor:

in­ter­net per­son­al­ity and Vayn­erMe­dia CEO Gary Vayn­er­chuk.

“Any non­tra­di­tional en­dorser is a great story,” Pow­ell said. “Gary Vayn­er­chuk is a col­or­ful guy who has made a lot of money and has a huge fol­low­ing on so­cial me­dia for a busi­ness­man. It’s a very cre­ative way to get the brand’s name out there.”

The part­ner­ship with the ad agency ex­ec­u­tive has also helped K-Swiss en­gage with a crop of sneaker en­thu­si­asts who had been elu­sive for the brand. “Gary brings a new au­di­ence to K-Swiss, and a cer­tain kind of cool,” said sneaker YouTube sen­sa­tion Mike “Mr. Foamer Simp­son” Ly­tle. “He’s built a pretty diehard fol­low­ing, and that’s who the sneaker res­onates with.”

The moves ap­pear to be pay­ing off. K-Swiss year-to-date sales are up 45 per­cent in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to Wa­ters. Mean­while, glob­ally, the brand is ex­pected to see a 30 per­cent gain in 2018.

Here, Wa­ters sounds off on re­turn­ing the la­bel to promi­nence, cel­e­brat­ing an en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and lur­ing in young cus­tomers.

How has K-Swiss evolved since you took the helm in 2016?

“When I took over, it was af­ter the ac­qui­si­tion by E.Land [in 2013]. K-Swiss had been through years of de­cline and loss. My first [task] was to clean up and re­set. We [trimmed] in­ven­tory, put a new team in place and moved our of­fice to down­town L.A. [We also im­proved] brand po­si­tion­ing. K-Swiss had aware­ness and eq­uity but had lost rel­e­vance. Now we’ve taken ac­tion to be­come a spe­cial­ist again rather than a gen­er­al­ist — and to find an open lane that was au­then­tic to us, which hap­pened to be ten­nis. We coined the term ‘Amer­i­can her­itage ten­nis.’ That [was] a lane we could own.”

How has E.Land im­pacted the la­bel since the ac­qui­si­tion?

“The main ben­e­fit is, we were able to sur­vive the years of de­cline. We’ve ap­plied their busi­ness philoso­phies to what we’re do­ing. They’re spe­cial­ists in brand build­ing, [and] we’ve ben­e­fit­ted from their ad­vice and coun­sel. We’ve [also] been able to open up dis­tri­bu­tion in their strong­hold mar­kets — they are our dis­trib­u­tor in China.”

Who are your ma­jor com­peti­tors?

“Any­one in the ath­letic sneaker busi­ness is a com­peti­tor. Ob­vi­ously Nike, Adi­das, Puma, Reebok — all the big guys — are sold in the places we as­pire to be sold in. But they’re out of our league in terms of the size of rev­enue. And brands like Fila, which is very sim­i­lar to us in terms of hav­ing au­then­tic his­tory and strength [given the] ’90s and early-2000s re­vival.”

What’s the big­gest chal­lenge K-Swiss is up against?

“The sneaker mar­ket is like the bev­er­age mar­ket with Coke and Pepsi. You’ve got Nike and Adi­das, which dom­i­nate all as­pects of our mar­ket. We’re [es­sen­tially] in a com­pet­i­tive sit­u­a­tion with Coke and Pepsi, so our big­gest chal­lenge is not to cre­ate cola. We can­not have a de­riv­a­tive ver­sion of what our com­peti­tors are do­ing.”

What is the com­pany’s great­est strength?

“Our au­then­tic her­itage. We have more than 50 years of con­sumer trust and sup­port, and you can’t go back and cre­ate that. And K-Swiss is largely un­touched; it hasn’t been through mul­ti­ple restarts or changed hands mul­ti­ple times, had mul­ti­ple strate­gies. It’s also pretty clean in terms of li­cens­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion — it has not been pulled in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions by dif­fer­ent en­ti­ties.”

K-Swiss is now in the elec­tronic sports busi­ness. Is es­ports the next big thing in sneak­ers?

“It should be. Kids aren’t play­ing catch with a base­ball mitt with their dads any­more; they’re play­ing Fort­nite with their dad. The es­portsview­ing au­di­ence — on key es­ports events — is dou­bling that of the NBA Fi­nals. I’m glad we’re al­ready work­ing on es­ports be­cause it’s un­doubt­edly the fu­ture.”

Why did you tap Vayn­er­chuk to lead the en­tre­pre­neur­ial push?

“He brought the idea to life that en­trepreneur­ship is the new as­pi­ra­tion of young peo­ple. That po­si­tion pre­dated our deal with Gary, and we went look­ing for him to bring it to life.”

How has he im­pacted the brand?

“When we did the deal with Gary, he had 600,000 fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram, and he now has 3 or 4 mil­lion. We’ve grown to­gether. He has had a huge im­pact for us by put­ting a face to our ef­forts. He’s a so­cial me­dia ma­chine, and he’s man­aged to get our mes­sage out. We have so many new cus­tomers now be­cause he brought K-Swiss to an au­di­ence that hasn’t thought of us in years.”

Who would be your next ideal am­bas­sador?

“Some­one known for en­trepreneur­ship [and] liv­ing that life. It would be great to have a fe­male coun­ter­part. Women are half the mar­ket and want to be rep­re­sented across the board. Also, mi­nori­ties are overindex­ing in terms of en­trepreneur­ship. About 30 per­cent of new busi­nesses are started by mi­nori­ties. The same way you see other sneaker brands’ web­sites [us­ing] ath­letes to launch their shoes, you’ll see en­trepreneurs on K-Swiss launch­ing our shoes.”

How will K-Swiss court younger con­sumers?

“Through a com­bi­na­tion of pro­gres­sive tac­tics, in­clud­ing our fo­cus on en­trepreneur­ship and foray into es­ports. We also launched her­itage K-Swiss ap­parel for the first time in years through our li­cense part­ner, High Life. That hit PacSun and Foot Locker and [tar­gets] younger con­sumers who wear throw­backs and [like] niche, un­known brands.”

“We’ve taken ac­tion to be­come a spe­cial­ist again rather than a gen­er­al­ist — and to find an open lane that was au­then­tic.” — Bar­ney Wa­ters

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