Branding strategies: Finding the cult in culture


Some brands are in the right place at the right time.  One minute, they are muddling in obscurity.  The next, greatness is bestowed upon them.  Every trend produces winners of this kind: Nike in the 1970s, Filofax in the 1980s, Snapple in the 1990s. 

This is pretty much what happened to Birkenstocks.  Sometime in the late 1960s, these odd little shoes were adopted by hippies and flower children.  They became a telling consumer choice and they entered a body of consumer choices (macrobiotics, granola, cork curtains, macrame wall hangings, tie die t-shirts, candles, frisbees, bicycles, Volvos).  Birkenstocks came to signal a hostility for industrial, capitalist, consumer, urban and urbane society.  For some consumers, they were a badge of ideological courage and convictions.  For others, well, some people took their Birkenstocks and quietly burned them in the garden. 

Quite often, marketers work to soften the edges of the new brand, the better to expand the market.  Not Birkenstocks.  Scott Radcliffe, the marketing director at Birkenstock Distribution USA, says "the brand’s strong point is its power to elicit both positive and negative reactions. That speaks to the bigger cultural relevance of the brand. That’s something I want to participate in. That’s not something I’m trying to shake."

Birkenstock didn’t mind when their shoes ended up dressing the feet of Senator Ortolan Finistirre, an antismoking environmentalist Democrat from Vermont, played by William H. Macy in the new movie, Thank you for smoking.  The director of the movie, Jason Reitman, used the brand to a purpose:

"Nothing says, ‘I want to tell you how to live your life’ more than Birkenstocks," The visual registers immediately. There’s something about the shoe that is universally understood that makes it so funny. The sandals are emblems of liberal do-gooderness."

For Radcliffe, this, too, was okay.  "Birkenstock fans," he said, "feel like they’re part of something bigger than most other shoe choices, frankly."

This branding strategy is clear.  Forget maximizing the market.  Forswear the extensive game of appealing to more consumers for the intensive one of appealing more to existing consumers.   Stay small.  Keep the faith. 

Most marketers will sneer at this.  The point of all marketing is to expand the market, to maximize the opportunity, to harvest the profit.  But there are reasons to suppose that the Birkenstocks strategy will assume new important in the marketer’s playbook. 

Some of these are technical.  Some growth strategies are driven by the 20% grow rule imposed by the street.  Private ownership will make a difference here.   There is also a growing feeling that no brand flourishes in the death valley between big brands and niche ones.  There is no chance for Birkenstock to makes its way across the death valley and install itself as a big brands.  So don’t bother trying

But the Birkenstock strategy is also driven by the new logic of the market place.  The connection between brands and consumers is now a relationship.  Brand recognition has become brand engagement.  The "value proposition" is less about a USP than a place in the consumer’s concept of who they are and what their world is.  So when a cultural trend fashions all of this for you, maybe the smart thing to do is to stay put and explore the riches of niches. 

"So how do we make any money?" will be the heart felt question of the true marketer.  And the answer I think is, more brands.  Not brand extensions.  This, as we know, is where brand intensity goes to die.  No, real, full blooded, utterly different brands.  These are hell to manage for a single company, to be sure.  But we are looking at a new marketplace, and more, smaller, more distinct brands, may be a new objective for us all.


Carr, Coeli.  2006.  Thank You for Insulting Our Sandals.  New York Times.  March 12, 2005. 

8 thoughts on “Branding strategies: Finding the cult in culture

  1. aj

    The movie – based on the book by Christopher Buckley – is actually Thank You *For* Smoking, a satire about a tobacco lobbyist.

  2. Jim Dingwall


    “riches of niches” — Better copyright or TM that one. It’s a keeper. Perfect title for your next… Whoa, sorry, must go, there are baby seals that need saving up here in Canada. Where are my open-toed galoshes?


  3. Amy Scissons

    Love this piece on Birks, I used to have a pair in college and loved them. I think another strategy that worked well for the company was distribution. They almost exclusively worked through sales agents who were essentially brand gurus, at least in Canada anyway. I remember having to know someone,… how knew someone,… to get a pair.

    I agree that creating polarization is a great technique, especially for a highly distinctive brand like Birks. We use Marmite, the British toast spread, as a classic example of polarizing opinions on the brand,… and how effective it can be. Marmite: ¨You either love it or hate it.¨ If your customers love it,… why not build on the sentiment?


  4. Jack Yan

    I think it’s less about limiting the market than nding ones where the groups of staff and wearer are blurred. That blurring becomes so appealing that existing customers see it as brand engagement, and new customers are drawn to it because it is a relationship they cannot have with their present brands. Still, it will be hard tempting me from my Daytons.

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  6. Grant

    AJ, thanks, so noted! Thanks, Grant

    Jim, coming from the master phrasemaker, I take that as a compliment. Best, Grant

    Amy, great point, distribution was well managed, like putting Snapple in Mom and Pop stores, that the brand might draw meaning from this point of sale. Thanks, Grant

    Jack, forgive me, I’m missing something, what do you mean by “groups of staff”? Thanks (sorry) Grant

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