Commentary

Vivobarefoot Looks For Social Traction

You’d think the claim that a product better enables us to do something in the same efficient wayour species has since wetook to two feet would be a compelling selling point. But it isn’t.

As an ardent barefoot/minimalist shoe advocate myself, I’ve learned that trying to convince the Nike-bedazzled that the vulcanized clodhoppers they’re wearing are unnatural and counterproductive is about as fruitful as telling a tween that life was social before smartphones.

And that’s why Galahad Clark, a sixth-generation cobbler, as he puts it, sees the need to transform his Vivobarefoot, which has been a minimalist shoe brand since 2004 and a standalone company since 2012, into “more and more of a media company than a traditional brand.”

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The U.K.-based Vivobarefoot is in the middle of a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to raise £70,000 (about $100,000) for the production of limited quantity of the traditional “SAN-dals” that are made and worn by persistence hunters in Namibia in an effort to help revive the craft, financially support the local community and introduce the sandals to consumers around the world.

Earlier this year, the company conducted a successful crowdfunding campaign,  but potential shareholders from the U.S. were frustrated by the legal restrictions — which were relaxed earlier this month — for anyone who is not an “accredited investor.”

Clark says the company got a lot of pushback from Americans who wanted a way to support his business besides buying its shoes. The story of the vanishing craft of San Bushmen, who have made the sandals from the hide of eland antelopes for thousand of years, proved to be the perfect vehicle.

“This is a lovely story and Kickstarter is a unique platform to be able to tell that story. At Vivo we believe we have a really big social mission, and if you’re into barefoot you really understand that mission.”

No More 'Lambasting People'
Indeed, converts to minimalism — ask my friends — tend to be a bit overbearing. So, after a few years of admittedly “lambasting people with technical arguments,” “showing off what we know,” and “sort of shoving it down people’s throats,” Vivobarefoot is using social media to create content that aligns with its mission.

The point is to create content "that sets off light bulbs rather than ‘you must wear barefoot shoes so that your feet aren’t deformed and weakened,’” he says. “You almost want people to figure it out in their heads for themselves, as it were, that people can move perfectly naturally without air and gel and medial-arch support.”

Alas, “people don’t have any time to read anymore,” they “definitely don’t like being lectured to” and “cognitive dissonance is a very powerful force — especially since we’re up against some of the sexiest, most established, sparkling companies in the world" -- who spend a lot of money on advertising, endorsements and sponsorships to boot, according to Clark.

The result is that, compared to its huge competitors, Vivobarefoot may not be selling a lot of shoes. And, admittedly, it’s still “finding its feet,” Clark says, trying to figure out how tightly to target, what its message should be and where to spend its money most effectively at a time when “Facebook has become a hell of a lot more expensive.”  

As the Kickstarter campaign continues, Vivobarefoot is publishing blog posts — “San and The Evolution of Footwear for Foot Health,” “The Barefoot Academy in the Kalahari” and “Venturing into the Kalahari,” for example — to highlight the technology as well as the history of the brand. It also created two viral videos — one long; one short — to promote the campaign and educate consumers.

After a strong launch, the not-for-profit effort is about 60% funded, with fewer than two weeks left. The equity campaign similarly started off with a bang, then had a nerve-inducing lull midstream. “We ramped up the effort and the last week was incredible,” Clark recalls. “I think social media, like crowd exercises, are about momentum.”

How to reach beyond its “incredibly loyal customer base” — more than 80% own two pairs; 38% five or more — to get that momentum going is the millions of £££s and $$$s question.

“One you get it, you get it, and you’re in, and it’s very hard to go back,” Clark says. “But for people to make the switch and go through the transition, they need to get it from an independent truth provider. Our challenge is to set up those independent, truth-provider interactions with people so that they’re not getting their marketing shoved at them by Vivobarefoot. It’s sort of a more nuanced cajoling into giving it a go.”

In signing off, Clark says he’s open to any social-media advice I might have, as Vivobarefoot is still learning “on the hoof.” Everything I know about social media comes from talking with you folks, of course, so feel free to lend your counsel below.

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