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An Iconic Basketball Brand Takes a Leap

When Jim Calhoun ’85, son of the legendary UConn basketball coach of the same name, joined Converse in 2011 as CEO, the company was struggling with its once-iconic basketball sneaker division. How could the brand that manufactured Chuck Taylors and sneakers once worn by NBA legends like Larry Bird, uh, rebound?

Calhoun, who studied psychology at UConn, says that the company needed to get inside the mind of the consumer. “It was clear the consumer wasn’t in love with Chuck Taylors because of what the company had been a hundred years ago,” he says. “It was something else they loved about Chucks.” They just had to figure out what it was.

Calhoun says that evidence suggested that people wore Converse as a means of self-expression, and that by 2011 the brand had little to do with shooting hoops. “The Chuck Taylor had come to symbolize something bigger. The Chuck Taylor had become a badge of youthfulness,” he says.

Calhoun, whose résumé includes stints at Disney, Levi’s and Converse’s parent brand, Nike, says that his basketball pedigree made this epiphany ironic—but also credible. “I gave us permission to embrace the creativity associated with our brand. It was unshackled. Given my personal and professional background, when I said we’re not about basketball anymore, it gave people permission to look forward rather than try to recapture the past.”

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

The archive of shoes and Converse-related objects at the headquarters in North Andover, Mass., is an acknowledgment of the storied history of Converse. Shoes on display include a 1917 military boot and a remarkably wearable-looking pair of Chuck Taylors from 1936. Converse was founded in 1908 by Marquis Mills Converse and produced only galoshes until 1915, when it introduced an athletic shoe. In 1921, basketball player Chuck Taylor signed on with the company to consult on function and fit, and to act as a salesman and ambassador to the basketball community. The rest is retail and pop culture history.

If Chuck Taylor jump-started the brand into basketball eminence, an impressive array of artists has kept the brand relevant. Elvis and James Dean wore them decades ago. Converse sneakers were part of Kurt Cobain’s grunge anti-uniform in the 1990s. And modern aficionados include Green Day, Kristen Stewart, Cate Blanchett and Rihanna.

Converse does little traditional marketing, which works just fine with a demographic that’s inclined to innovate and is resistant to following. One recent and rare ad campaign taps into the concept that Converse are for people who value individuality: “Shoes Are Boring/Wear Sneakers.”

Their social media strategy, however, is spot on. As of fall 2013, Converse is second only to Coca-Cola in the number of Facebook followers.


Reaching the Consumer

Of course, a multibillion-dollar company with 3,500 employees world-wide has to have a clear strategy for selling products. The product line now includes winterized sneaker boots with a recognizable silhouette and a broadening array of sneakers, apparel and other footwear that aligns with the youthful, creative brand. (At the headquarters, one of the spectacles includes a 3-D printer used to make shoe prototypes.)

The corporate structure at Converse is a mix of traditional and non-traditional. The interaction between corporate entity and consumer is unique. Authenticity wins over explicit calls to action. “Buy me now” does not fly with the Converse community. The company views conversations and relationships as more important to the brand’s long-term success.

For example, one Converse initiative well-known among aspiring musicians is RubberTracks, the free recording studio that Converse runs in Brooklyn, N.Y. Calhoun says that many musicians who have recorded there are unofficial brand advocates—but that Converse requires absolutely nothing of the musicians except that they are serious about their craft. Converse does not own the music or profit from it in any way. The RubberTracks studio is an expression of the company’s assertion that unleashing creativity can change the world.

Converse also has a history of corporate support for nonprofit organizations, so Calhoun wondered if the impact of their corporate philanthropy might just be greater if Converse were to support an effort more closely aligned with the power of creativity. “We wondered what organizations might share our convictions,” he says.

After years of distributing its philanthropy broadly, Calhoun decided to focus on an arts program for the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, which works with students who have little or no access to creative outlets. Calhoun says that Converse plans to replicate the work with Boys and Girls Clubs in other communities as well.

New Beginnings

In 2015, the Converse headquarters is slated to move into an old brick building, restoring vibrancy to an industrial space that’s lost its luster. Another elegant irony in Calhoun’s story is that the space is across Route 93 and visible from the TD Garden, home to the Celtics. The relocated headquarters will have a RubberTracks studio like the one in Brooklyn.

Calhoun’s current position is the result of a lot of hard work, and some luck. For example, while working at Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago, he was involved in the “casting” of Wilson, the volleyball in the movie Castaway. Almost by accident, a product-placement hero was born. It’s this kind of forward thinking and hard work that ultimately paid off.

Not surprisingly, while Calhoun was at Nike, management invited him to lead a team for the first time rather than be a team member. “I found myself being pulled from product. I was like a player who is not ready to retire,” he says. “I was being forced to coach when I wanted to play.

“Then I fell in love with it. I had an epiphany: I’ve grown up and become my dad—and it’s pretty awesome.”
 

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An Iconic Basketball Brand Takes a Leap