Timberland Finds Itself, With Earthkeepers

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Timberland's riches to rags to (maybe) riches story is about how the benighted outdoors brand let itself become defined by popular culture as a hip-hop shoe, then suffered when hip hop moved elsewhere. And the tale follows the brand out of the woods back to its original idea by engaging with people in new ways with traditional and social media.

The company's chief brand officer for Timberland, Mike Harrison, delineated the hike back from the desert at the Argyle CMO Leadership Conference in New York on Thursday. The company, with over $1 billion in annual sales of its shoes and clothing in 81 countries, needed to find a way to talk about its social responsibility efforts and use of recycled materials and renewable energy -- but without preaching. Harrison says the idea to produce an Earth-friendly sub-brand, Earthkeepers, came from a Timberland effort in China to reforest an overgrazed part of the Mongolian Steppes by planting one million trees.

"As a marketer, one of the most frustrating things [to me] about the brand was that nobody knew about it," he said. "We weren't getting credit. We were all walk and no talk when it came to environmental initiatives." Part of it, he said, was that the company didn't think people really cared much about its environmental efforts. "And we didn't have good vehicle to do it. Traditional media wasn't a way to do it, and we were doing fine without storytelling."

So for 15 years Timberland had double-digit growth helped by youth culture turning the label into a fashion. "But then we started to run out of international markets to open up and urban kids stopped wearing baggy pants and boots. We lost three-quarters of market cap in three years."

That prompted soul searching and management changes at the Stratham, N.H.-based company. "We had to admit we had been complacent, letting the brand stand for what people thought of us rather than what we knew we were," he said. The urgent need to focus back on the core promise and tell the story in a different way led to the Earthkeepers boot, which is made entirely with recycled materials. "It was hurry up and get it out by Christmas," said Harrison. "We were in crisis mode. It was our first green product."

The company launched it at its own stores, with point-of-purchase displays of things like discarded auto tires from which the boot's soles are derived, and empty plastic bottles. It sold well, so the company followed with advertising -- first outdoor, then with TV -- "something we hadn't done in a while," he said.

Far from sanctimonious, the ads poked fun at the virtues of being green. One showed two guys hiking, one in Earthkeepers boots, the other with competitive boots. The latter guy is blown off a mountain by a sudden wind, attacked by bees, tripped by a rock, and pushed into a river by a tree, with the message that if you don't wear Earthkeepers nature might attack you.

Then the company created its first social media campaign on Facebook where people could plant virtual trees on their own pages and invite people to "water" them, thus making them grow. For each full-grown virtual tree, Timberland planted a real one.

"It was a case of be careful what you wish for. We got a million trees in six months. We had to take the program down to catch up, and we got hit: we discovered we had built a community over this and they were pissed with us because we took it down. Our CEO was getting 60,000 emails over the weekend."

The company continued the program with new tree-planting opportunities in Haiti and Nepal, and the CEO went online to chat with fans about it. "It was a huge breakthrough for us in terms of reaching consumers digitally."

The company has also used Earthkeepers for advocacy, running a program with Nike and Levis to promote a "Walk the talk" program around the Copenhagen climate summit. Harrison said Timberland is now ahead of Nike and Patagonia in share of voice. And the company has started to turn around higher revenues and stronger share prices.

What doesn't work? "TMI," said Harrison. "Too much information is not what most 'light green' consumers want. They understand fewer tires in a landfill, they like the idea of planting trees." And, he said, they don't really like earnest messages. They prefer humor and optimism.

Another example of that is the company's "Nature Needs Heroes" tongue-in-cheek campaign that ran just before the holidays globally, in which a guy in Timberland boots goes to extreme lengths to capture a renegade plastic water bottle. In France, the company got a 'cease and desist' letter from plastic bottle manufacturers, and that led to a series of viral videos starring the guy in the ad doing the voice of a plastic bottle explaining how the life of a homeless bottle is a terrible thing, and how Timberland is offering a shelter for discarded bottles.

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