It’s often been said that if you’re going to talk the talk, you should walk the walk. Keen Footwear has uniquely positioned itself to do that.
The Portland, OR-based shoe manufacturer—which started 10 years ago with a single sandal style, the Newport—crafted its brand around the concept of living a hybrid, balanced life. Today, Keen sells more than 300 styles in 60 countries.
“The idea was that you shouldn’t be limited in the things that you do, so the shoes would take you from rafting to trails to the city for coffee afterward, with hybrid functionality,” says Linda Balfour, director of brand marketing.
The goal was always to be an inclusive brand, catering to everyone from kids to hip young adults to grandparents, all who wanted to connect with the outdoors. The Newport sandal is still one of the core styles around the world (a customizable design-your-own Newport was debuted earlier this year), although there are of course some regional steps. For example, moon boots are popular in Japan, particularly with young people who like to attend music festivals, while hiking shoes are a top seller in Europe, tying in with the Envirotrek movement, which encourages sustainable tourism.
“There’s a lot of consistency around the world—we try to create a message and then adapt it to different markets,” says Balfour. “Different parts of the brand shine through, with a focus on being comfortable and spontaneous.”
The key throughout is having a solid integrated marketing mix, to drive engagement with core fans and push conversions. As a smallish company, the paid media spend is limited, so much attention is spent focusing on channels like social and PR for maximum return.
Toward that end, the company created a Keen Ambassador program, focusing on brand loyalists who typically wear the products every day and are excited to test and talk about products. There are about 100 different Ambassadors at different tiered levels.
“Some are very recognizable people who are exemplifying living a hybrid life—they’re outside playing hard every day and giving back to the world,” says Balfour. “Some are in the public limelight. For example, there’s a woman named Allison Gannet. In a previous life she was a world class race skier, and now she does mountain bike camps for women. In her free time, she lives on an organic farm. Rue Mapp is African American woman who promotes getting all kinds of women outside, because the outdoors is for everyone. And then we have Nick Greece, who is all about hang gliding and education in Nepal.”
Programs such as camps or nonprofits that are important to the Ambassadors are promoted through the program’s social promotions. The demographic composition of Keen’s audience varies between channels—Instagram skews younger, while more women seem to be on Twitter
“We love Instagram because it’s a wonderful way to inspire people with photos,” says Balfour. “We’ll pick a fan photo of the week, highlighting a neat picture of people living life in the Keens, say, hang gliding in their shoes.”
Engagement is high on Facebook, where there’s an ability to share in a deeper way than Twitter, which gives Keen a chance to share links and retweet comments from followers quickly. Pinterest is a breakout channel for Keen—the brand has gathered more than 3 million followers there interested in Keen’s imagery. Email is utilized in a more product marketing specific way, with brand marketing messages shared regularly on new offerings.
Offline, Keen utilizes live events to connect with its audience. KeenFest, a birthday party to celebrate the brand’s 10th anniversary, was thrown at an industry trade show to thank retailers for their continued support.
“To pull all the pieces of a hybrid life together, we partnered with a local community garden in Salt Lake City (the location of the retailer party) and asked them to grow food for us,” says Balfour, noting that the garden was given a $5,000 grant as part of the partnership. Dubbed #KeentoGrow, the initiative also included social posts encouraging people to share ideas about what and how they garden, offering tips to help consumers get started.
The birthday celebrations were promoted heavily via social media. For consumers to join in the party, a coupon for a free cupcake at participating bakeries on March 1, 2013, was offered. In Europe, the birthday was celebrated with a giant Newport sandal-shaped cake that took 60 hours to create. “The picture went viral—it was one of our most successful social media posts ever, and was a fun quirky way to celebrate our birthday,” says Balfour.
Meaning of Engagement
As for the ROI of these efforts, Keen watches engagement metrics closely to see how people are engaging and how those social interactions can be tracked to conversions on the website.
“We’re lucky that we’re a privately held company, so we can do things differently,” Balfour says. “The mantra of our owner is that we don’t want customers, we want fans.”
In past years, Keen has highlighted its hybrid life philosophy with campaigns like Recess is Back, where it promoted the fun of the outdoors and encouraged people to get outside and play, to be happier and healthier. “We partnered with a doctor at UCLA to create an ‘instant recess’ tool kit people could bring to their HR manager to give them a solid case for why companies should encourage people to play,” Balfour says.
In 2013, Keen rolled out the Brave New Toes campaign, tapping into what Balfour called the “intersection of music and the outdoors.” The company partnered with sites like BuzzMedia and Pandora, showcasing humorous videos featuring—what else—toes, in which it reminds viewers how well little piggies are protected by the company’s footwear. The Toe James Sweepstakes, in conjunction with Backpacker magazine, encouraged fans to create Pinterest boards and pin a music festival image of their choosing. One winner received a trip for two to the festival, as well as a pair of Keen’s CNX shoes.
Follow Your Feet will be the theme of the new year, using paid media and social media, as well as retail promotions to celebrate the outdoors