Unconventionals Podcast | Season 1 Episode 5

Converse

On this episode of The Unconventionals, host Mike O'Toole interviews Chief Marketing Officer Geoff Cottrill from Converse, about its innovative Brooklyn based recording studio - Rubber Tracks.

For Converse, the sales of athletic shoes used to be very straightforward.  Everyone wore Chuck Taylors. Over time the landscape for those shoes has become incredibly crowded, and looking at alternative ways to keep your brand top of mind is challenging. That's where Converse Rubber Tracks Studio comes into play. Rubber Tracks serves as a bridge between the Converse brand and young emerging bands, allowing them the opportunity to record their music in a high performance studio location - no cost and no strings attached.

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Speaker 1:

Next on PJA radio's The Unconventionals ...

Speaker 2:

Your first question anytime you get presented with an opportunity from the management side is, "Well what's the catch? What do they want from us?"

Mike O'Toole:

It isn't very interesting to talk about the upheaval in marketing brought by digital and social media... That already feels like an old story, but here's what's interesting. This upheaval has created a whole lot of innovation and disruption. The chaos is a rich source of unconventional thinking.

How do you sell, create awareness, talk to customers, when you don't control the message and when media channels and devices proliferate and change daily? My guest today has a novel solution. Jeff Cottrill, CMO of Converse, has come to his strategy by going back to the basics, by asking, "Who is my consumer, and what can I do to reward their custom?" His very unconventional answer has to do with 400 musicians and a recording studio in Brooklyn.

I'm Mike O'Toole, and this is The Unconventionals. We love it when a contrarian idea and great execution lead to outsize success. Jeff joined me over the phone from Converse's headquarters in Andover, Mass. I'll let him tell you about Rubber Track Studios.

Geoff Cottrill:

Rubber Tracks is a community-based studio based in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. It's a 5200 square feet, state-of-the-art recording studio. It's got a recording studio, a B studio for vocals and mixing, and a rehearsal space and a performance space. The reason it makes sense for us is our core consumer at Converse is a creative person, it's an artist, it's a musician. The music industry, musicians, artists, have been really friendly to Converse for many many years and we felt like it was an opportunity for us to invest in the future of creativity by opening a place and letting artists that are in need of getting some good quality recording time, to be able to provide that for them free of charge.

Mike O'Toole:

I haven't heard of anything like this before. This is not a traditional way, as you say, for a company to reach its customers. I wanted to ask you specifically, where did the idea of Rubber Tracks come from?

Geoff Cottrill:

I think the idea came from a lot of us working together and really looking at different interesting ways that we can connect with our consumer. The idea doesn't belong to any one person. It's an idea that we had and it was a lot of people, an awful lot of people around Converse that sort of pulled together to make it come to life. It's definitely a non-traditional way and I think some of the conversations early on were, "Well, that's not traditional. Why wouldn't we just run advertising?" We looked at it and we said, "For what it costs to run 3 or 4 weeks of heavy TV in the U.S., a good heavy campaign one time for a month, we could potentially operate a studio for a number of years."

As we sort of stepped back and looked at that and said, "If a marketer is supposed to be focused on its core consumer and driving relationships, and really connecting with that consumer, that this seemed like a good investment," versus what we call sometimes, or what I refer to sometimes as disposable advertisement. We still do some print, we still at home, we still do digital, we always will. We still do TV from time to time, but if you don't have the bedrock for foundational things in place, really connecting with your consumer, then you can run the risk of just being noise in their life.

We sell sneakers to young people all over the world, and young people are bombarded with messages every single day. They can't escape them, none of us can. The idea of let's not focus on what the message is, let's focus on the experience for the consumers, and let the experience be the message. Let their experience and what they remember and what they take with them be the message. We think that in the 14 or 15 months we've been open, between the A studio, the B studio, the rehearsal space, and the performance space, we've connected with more than 400 artists and I haven't heard them say anything bad about their experience with us. And that will last for years to come, and that's some of the thinking that went behind that. This idea that there are so many young artists or emerging artists out there that don't have the means to get into a recording studio. They'll tell you, "We can't get signed until we get a good recording, but we can't get a good recording until we get signed, we don't have the money."

The opportunity to let these artists come in and record and if they go on to sign record deals, we think that's terrific, and if they don't go on to sign record deals that's fine too. It's this opportunity that we didn't want them to miss. We often say an artist will come in and maybe 5 years from now, they didn't make it as an artist, and they get together for a dinner with their friends who were in their band and they say, "Remember that when we did that? That was really great. I'll never forget that." Versus that same group of people 5 years from now meeting at a dinner saying, "Man we could have been something. If we only had a little bit of money to get into the studio, gosh, what could have been?" For us, it's about that. It's not about trying to make bands and artists famous, although we'll help where we can. We have a huge Facebook community.

We're creating content and we're helping these artists get exposed to new audiences and that's cool if it works out for them. We tell them, "Hey, this isn't about Converse making you famous because we're not going to make you an empty promise. What we're going to do though, is we're going to bring you into the studio. We're going to put you with world class engineers, some of whom have won Grammys, some of whom have won an Academy Award and we're going to put you in that studio and let you guys do what you do. Then you're going to keep everything you recorded and hopefully we'll still be friends." That's what we've been doing. We've been really focused on making sure that we keep our feet on the ground and that we don't get in the music business because that's not our business. It's about just providing our consumers with a good experience.

Mike O'Toole:

Rubber Tracks Studio is about finding a core of consumers and giving them a good experience, no strings attached. There's a generosity there and a humility, an awareness of the role that a brand should play when consumers share control. It's also a very pragmatic calculation. Media is expensive, more expensive than a tricked out recording studio in some cases. As Jeff goes on to say, media has broken into a million little pieces and the consumer chooses what to pay attention to. When you hear him talk, you start to get this sense of advertising, while it plays a role as disposable. A layer of abstraction as opposed to a direct connection between the brand and it's customer. Rubber Tracks is an effort to build a more permanent and more meaningful connection.

Geoff Cottrill:

Traditional media is still very important in the mix. I don't want to say that it's not. It absolutely is but I do think that you need to do things from time to time as a brand if you really want to deeply connect with your consumers, you need to do something a little bit more meaningful. In this particular case, this is our attempt to that.

Mike O'Toole:

If you had a $100 to invest in marketing, 10 years ago, what amount of that would have gone to more traditional paid advertising and what amount of that is going to paid advertising today? I know that's a little bit tough to answer specifically, but...

Geoff Cottrill:

Let me answer that question maybe this way. I think 10 or 15 years ago you worked at a big brand, you spent a lot of money to produce a beautiful television commercial, then you bought event TV, Super Bowl, Grammy awards, or you know, something big that was on TV that you knew lots of people were going to watch. You launch your campaign and then you bought enough media over the next couple of months that you really got the word out and then you really tested your ads and lo and behold, the testing came back and said they could recall your message. We thought well isn't that great? That's just terrific. That was in a day and age when people couldn't escape. Now you can. Now you've got DVR, you've got your phone. You've got your iPad, you've your laptop. You have your friends, you've got Facebook, you have Instagram, you have a million things to distract you and also get you away from all the messaging and all the noise.

It's harder today to break through and to do that. We used to be able to do that and you could kind of be lazy as a marketer, it was just a matter of is your creative clever enough to cut through the clutter of ads? Now you need to be much more strategic about how and where you spend your money because it's not so simple. It's not just the traditional play that's going to get to people. Although again, that can certainly play a role in the mix but again, I go back to, I think you sometimes need to do things that are a little bit more meaningful, a little bit more long term in focus in order to really connect with a consumer.

Mike O'Toole:

One of the first questions Jeff gets about Rubber Tracks Studio is what do you get out of this? God knows I asked him the question. The question of return though resists a simple characterization. It turns out that Converse gets plenty out of Rubber Track Studio but in a large part because they ask nothing in return.

Geoff Cottrill:

I've a pretty long history of working with some big brands in and around music and my experience has been most brands do what I call muse music, right? They borrow equity from a musician or a song to make their brand look a certain way with a certain demographic. They use music to borrow equity to make themselves look cool or to somehow connect with a demographic. We don't really use music at all in our marketing. We actually believe that our core consumer in many cases is a musician. As a marketer, our job is to focus on who your core consumer is and then find ways to deeply connect with them and serve them on some level. We have a couple of basic marketing principles where we try very hard as a brand to celebrate our audience more than we celebrate ourselves and we try to be useful when we can and I don't think there are a lot of brands out there that put that into play. Let's be useful. How can we sometimes spend our marketing dollars to help our consumers or serve our consumers in new and interesting ways?

As a result, we're helping young artists, or emerging artists get an opportunity to get into a studio, that they might not have been able to afford and in return we ask nothing. It's our way to say thank you to one, the industry and musicians that have been so good to us for so long but another way, it's another way for us to be useful and say, "Hey, you're at this place in your career and we want to offer you a little bit of help." It's true, we're not asking for anything in return and that's been the question I've been asked over and over and over again, dozens of times. What do you get in return? I think what we get in return is that we give these artists a really good quality experience and we don't take anything from them and as a result we're seeing that they're speaking up and being advocates, brand advocates on our behalf.

Virtually every artist that's come in, while they're there or after they're there, posting on Instagram, on Facebook, talking to their social media network, their fan base about this great experience that they've had. My belief has been for a long time that people are media, right? The experiences and interactions that you give them and the interactions that they have with you, are what they carry and if I go back to my first marketing principle around celebrating our audience, not ourselves, if you do that and you do it effectively, and you do it in a genuine way, your audience will speak on your behalf. We've seen a tremendous growth in our Facebook community over the last couple of years because we've got a lot of these people, saying nice things about the brand because we didn't try to get our hooks into them or take anything from them while they were recording in the studio.

Mike O'Toole:

I have to say I love this notion of being useful to rather than using your customer and being useful creates good will and I wanted to understand how the musicians themselves would talk about this. How they responded to the experience. Jeff goes on to talk about the Retros, a Chinese band who recorded at Rubber Tracks.

Geoff Cottrill:

I'll give you an example of something that I thought was really sort of really kind of interesting and meaningful. We brought a band over from China, just South by Southwest. We sort of sponsored their trip over. They played a bunch of shows. They literally played a ton of shows. They're called the Retros. Then the following week, we flew them from Austin to New York and they spent the week in the studio. They'd never really spent time in a good quality studio. They were from, I believe they were from Beijing. I was in the control room the first time they played their song back to them and the lead singer was virtually in tears because he'd said, "I didn't know our band sounded this good. I didn't know we could sound this good. We've never been in a room so quiet with this kind of equipment before. I just can't tell you how much we appreciate it and I just want to say thank you."

After I sort of caught my breath because it was such a meaningful moment for everybody at Converse who was there, our response back to him was "Thank you. You guys are the ..." It's the creative people in the world that change the world. That drive the real change in the world and seeing a band coming out of China, a place that's now known for really celebrating creativity and seeing how happy these young artists were as a result of their experience at Rubber Track, we have dozens and dozens of stories like that of artists that are truly appreciative of the experience. For us, we couldn't be any more pleased with the results and really again, I go back to the relationships that we're creating each and every single day there.

Speaker 1:

You're listening to PGA Radio's The Unconventionals. If you'd like to learn more about the show, check out our Facebook page, Facebook.com/Unconventionalsradio. Our academic sponsor for The Unconventionals is a Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, host of the 2013 Brite Conference, being held in New York City on March 4th and 5th. The conference brings leaders from business, technology, media and marketing to discuss how technology and innovation are transforming the ways companies build and sustain great brands. For more information, visit BriteConference.com. That's BriteConference.com.

Speaker 5:

I'm William Dunkle. I'm an entertainment attorney here in Austin and I also manage Soul Track Mind. I think it was a friend who gave me a, sent me a blog post that was talking about the opportunity that Converse was presenting down here in Austin and the coolest thing that I thought was they were only interested in Texas bands. They wanted to come down out of Brooklyn and work with Texas bands during South by Southwest.

Speaker 6:

I've played with other bands before and I've played in so many different recording studios and there's a wide range of studios out there and they obviously range from people's garages to incredible facilities that people have spent millions of dollars on and they can be as wide ranging and as far as price goes. We're working on another album right now and we argued for a while over the past 2 years when are we going to get to it? Then we look at our bank account and we're like, well, it might be a little while so let's take every opportunity we can to hop into a studio and Rubber Tracks came along at a really convenient time for us to get some experience in there recording some of the tunes we were considering for the next album.

Speaker 7:

As a new band with younger guys who aren't 40 year old dudes who spent their whole life in studios, studio time is invaluable. We've spent a lot of money on studio time. We've spent a lot of money on studio time with the exact same product. In Rubber Tracks to not leave the studio saying, "Man we just blew a lot of money on a bunch of tracks we're just not going to use." It was really nice to be able to have an available studio to go to that didn't care what actually happened. They were there to hit record.

Speaker 8:

Your first question, you know, anytime you get presented with an opportunity from the management side is "Well what's the catch?" Honestly, Converse truly wanted to support what the musicians are doing creatively. We got somewhere between 10 or 12 hours of studio time and the guys got to work through 4 tracks but 100% of the ownership stays with us. We can market it how we want. We can distribute it how we want. We can not distribute if we wanted to. There was simply no control on their part of the actual recordings. They just want to support the creative process and so to get the chance, any chance to get that experience, especially if it's not out of your own pocket is a huge thing for, especially for an emerging group.

Mike O'Toole:

Welcome back to The Unconventionals. I'm Mike O'Toole and that was Soul Track Mind who played at the Rubber Tracks pop up studio at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. My guest today is Geoff Cottrill. He's the CMO at Converse. We're talking about Rubber Tracks studio, the world class recording studio established by Converse that is available to bands no charge and no strings attached. Earlier in the show, Geoff said that people are media. Lots of people use this kind of language today but you have the sense that Geoff believes this more than most. Of course it helps when you have a social network as large as Converse does.

Geoff Cottrill:

You know, I think we look at ourselves with, we make and sell footwear and apparel but we also manage a fairly large network now. We've got more than 33 million Facebook fans that want to hear from us. They want us to be part of the conversation. When it first started out, there's a story where somewhere, my digital team came into my office 3 or 4 years ago and said, "We have 8 million Facebook fans." I was like, "Yeah, that's great." "No, we have like 8 million Facebook fans, what are we going to do?" I'm like, "What have we done so far?" "Nothing. We haven't done anything." I'm like, "Well we should probably keep that for a little while. It seems to be working."

The idea behind that was let's not get in the way and try to dictate the conversation. Let's understand that people are sort of gathering in social media space to want to come together over a common interest or a common love, and in our case, it's our sneakers. We participate in that. We really celebrate it. I think we're, like I said, we're over 33 million fans now and we treat it very carefully. We never ask anybody to join our page or become our fan or anything like that. We just try to facilitate and participate in the conversation. At the same time, try to, when we can, add some content and add some value to the conversation.

Mike O'Toole:

Rough layer with brand values. The 5 adjectives that define a company that exist on a poster in a corporate headquarters. There's nothing wrong at all with articulating brand values. In fact, it can be an invaluable exercise in driving alignment. The problem is when companies resort to the safe middle and use the same words as everyone else. When that happens, you can be sure that customer centric and innovative are always 2 of the 5. It's much more interesting when the words are specific and concrete and different. Converse's 5 values are American, youthful, rebellious, sneakers, and blank canvas. That last one really sticks out to me. No one but Converse could own it. My mind immediately goes to the Chuck Taylor's I wore for 8th grade basketball.

Geoff Cottrill:

It's funny. When we did some research a couple of years ago and we were talking to the research company, starting off when we were using terms like blank canvas is something that we, the Chuck Taylor's then and blank canvas for years for people to express themselves and they really have. The research company kind of chuckled a little bit and said, "Yeah, you know, great briefing. We're going to go into research but we have to tell you we think the blank canvas thing, we think you're kind of talking to yourself a little bit but you know, it's good. We could understand why you would say that." Then they came back and said in every single focus group in every single country somebody brought up the idea that Converse is a blank canvas. It's a blank canvas in the fact that, yeah, the simple product is made of canvas and rubber and people draw on it and write on it and express themselves and used to send messages to each other long before people had mobile phones and all that stuff.

Yeah, it's a key part of the actual product but then, we also learned that people that love and wear our brand always say that Converse doesn't get in my way. It doesn't tell me who I'm supposed to be. It allows me to express my own self and who I am and allows me to be comfortable and relaxed in my own skin. When that happens, when somebody is comfortable and relaxed in their own skin, great things can happen because there's that inner confidence that allows you to push yourself and to do great things so blank canvas is something that's incredibly near and dear to all of our hearts. Like I said, it's a term, it's a phrase, it's a couple of words that people all over the world use to describe Converse, not just as a product but who we are and what we mean to them.

Mike O'Toole:

Rubber Track Studios is a blank canvas.

Geoff Cottrill:

Absolutely, no question. It's a beautiful couple of rooms. It's a nice space. It's got some great street art in it. It's got incredible equipment. A really quiet room, a good control board. We're not making any music at all. It's the artists that come in, use the canvas if you will, use the studio to make whatever it is they want to say and they want to make. It's about letting them, provide them the opportunity to get what's inside their head and their heart out and record it so people can hear it and experience it.

Mike O'Toole:

The point of The Unconventionals is that we can all learn something from companies that take a path less traveled. Who think a little bit differently and have the courage of their convictions. I say this because you might be excused for thinking Converse doesn't apply. They're a fan brand. More than a 100 years old and an American icon. They've got 33 million Facebook fans. What could Rubber Track Studio possibly have to do with me? Here's Geoff on the question.

Geoff Cottrill:

I think the basic marketing principles and ideas that we apply can apply to any brand. You know, like I said, we try to focus on our consumer and celebrate our audience and our audience is in many cases artists and creative people. Be useful. We try to do things where we say, own, don't rent. We won't sponsor a lot of stuff. There's so much sponsorship noise out in the world and you pay your money and the rights owner tells you where you can put your poster. It's just kind of crazy. Then the 4th thing we do is we try to bring different cultures and different kinds of people together. Those are things that we try to apply to all of our marketing. Yeah, I think that these kinds of things, I think you need to know as a brand marketer, who your brand is, what your brand values are, what you stand for, and what's your fundamental conviction in terms of what you believe in that's actually bigger than your product offering.

At Converse we say we believe that unleashing the creative spirit will change the world. It's a fundamental belief we have at the company. It's etched on the walls in our building. It's etched on the walls of our offices all over the world. It starts there. We believe that this idea of unleashing the creative spirit will change the world. That statement has nothing to do with footwear and apparel. It has nothing to do with sneakers. Then we say if that's our fundamental belief, then how are we going to take our brand and connect and try to facilitate and celebrate what we believe? I think any brand, the great brands in the world have a conviction that's bigger than their product offering. Then they aspire to deliver against that conviction through their product offering. Whether you're making instruments for scientists, computers, cars, soft drink, I challenge the marketer to go back to what the company believes in and does the company and/or the brand really believe that conviction and are you living it? If you are, chances are you're going to connect deeply with who you're trying to connect with.

Mike O'Toole:

While that principle Geoff outlines may be universal in their application, the point is not to take Converse's example too literally. The definition of Unconventionals is that they follow their own path and keep their own counsel. Geoff says it better than I could. Let me close with his thoughts.

Geoff Cottrill:

Sometimes you have to have the guts to not always try to fit into the category that you're in and you've got to have the guts to sometimes step out and lead and I remember I used to work for Coca-Cola, arguably the world's greatest brand and [Sergio Zeman 27:14] once said to us, we were in a meeting and somebody mentioned something that their competitor was doing and he said, "Don't. We lead. We don't follow. The minute we let them pull us onto their playing field, we lose. Stay in our playing field. Lead." I'll tell you, I will never ever forget that. That meeting, that advice and I've tried to take that and apply it wherever I've gone since then. It's like we're the leader in casual footwear. Not in the entire footwear market, that's Nike, our parent company but, and they too are an amazing company but in our segment, we're a leader. We're responsible for leading, not for looking over our shoulder and looking at what others are doing and trying to emulate or copy them. We have to be who we are and then we have to figure out the best possible way for us to connect with our consumers. We're trying very hard to do that.

Mike O'Toole:

Thanks to Geoff Cottrill, CMO of Converse. Thanks to Soul Track Mind for their music and their time. I'm Mike O'Toole and this is The Unconventionals.

Speaker 1:

The Unconventionals is written and produced by Mike O'Toole with Reed Mangan. Post production and technical direction by Reed Mangan with Emmanuel Ording. Promotion and distribution by Greg Shaface and Jess Wheel. Our creative director is Erin DeSilva. Our executive producer is Phil Johnson for PJ Advertising and Marketing. I'm Jafil Lehee. Special thanks this week to Soul Track Mind. To sign up for their mailing list, visit SoulTrackMind.com. To hear more episodes of The Unconventionals visit PGARadio.com.

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