Finding My Fun: A Thorough Examination of Crocs, the Most-Hated Shoe in America
May 14, 2015
Nothing about the stretch of 34th Street in New York's Herald Square is great. It's a long block of uninspired stores, pedestrian traffic, and noise. The thing to do is keep your eyes on your phone and power through it. For once, whatever’s on your screen really is more appealing than what’s in front of you.
A couple of months ago, that’s what I was doing—walking around Herald Square, engrossed in whatever nonsense was on my phone. There must have been a louder than normal honk, or a looming shadow; whatever it was, it made me look up. In front of me there were commuters and shoppers and buses. There was also a large citrus-colored rocketship—a two-story building facade in lemon and lime emblazoned with five letters in casual type: Crocs.
A giant flagship? Here? Now? The year-old store seemed to communicate the message that something new and alluring stood behind its doors, that the company was unmoved by the years of public vitriol hurled at the chunky clogs Tim Gunn once likened to plastic hooves. Nay, said the storefront, we are still here and just as garish as you remember.
I didn't dare enter, but the very next morning, the universe chimed in: "Crocs Tries to Revive Iconic Clogs in Brand's Biggest Marketing Push," read the headline in the Wall Street Journal. On billboards, in commercials, and on bus banners, the company planned to highlight its classic hole-punched clog with the hashtag #FindYourFun throughout the US, UK, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and China.
McKinney—an ad agency that has breathed life into similarly familiar but stale brands like Mentos and Travelocity—had been given $10 million to make Crocs newly appealing. The resulting campaign involved images of Croc-shaped swimming pools, fireworks, and tropical tree formations, all with a reminder to #FindYourFun.
It seemed ill-advised, like doubling down, stubbornly, on a bad hand. Sure, on some feet, Crocs make sense: baby feet, health care worker feet, chef feet. But on Rihanna feet, Kate Middleton feet, Helen Mirren feet? I didn't get it. And yet, I was being told that Crocs were selling more shoes globally than ever before; last year's sales were $1.2 billion. What clearly powerful twist of consumer psychology permitted the brand's continued existence? Once and for all, I had to figure it out.
"When you tell a story using fashion, you have an opportunity to appeal to and attract the shopper," Julian explains.
The peaks and troughs of Crocs' 12-year history have been well, and very publicly, documented. Maybe the most thorough and dirt-dishing account is a 2008 feature in Denver magazine 5280 (all three Crocs co-founders are from Colorado, and the company's current headquarters are in Niwot, Colo.). Scott Seamans, an entrepreneur and boatsman, was researching new business ideas when he came across a lightweight spa shoe produced in Canada. It was extremely comfortable and resistant to smell, as it was made from closed-cell resin (now patented as Crocs Croslite, "not plastic nor rubber!"). The original spa shoe had no heel strap. Seaman's stuck one on. The Croc was born.
His longtime friends, Lyndon "Duke" Hanson and George Boedecker (with whom, it has been reported, Seamans and Hanson eventually had a falling out), joined in on the enterprise despite thinking the prototype was ugly. All they had to do was try it on—unparalleled comfort. Crocs' meteoric rise began at a 2002 boat show in Florida where a thousand pairs flew off the shelves and out of stock. There was, evidently, a hole in the market for a goofy, pragmatic, odorless shoe that transitioned fluidly between water and land, just like a crocodile. A fortune was theirs for the taking.
Crocs' 2006 IPO was the largest ever by a US footwear company. Quickly, it introduced dozens of new styles, mostly for women, that looked a little more like "regular" shoes. Celebrities and their children were seen wearing them. Crocs acquired Jibbitz, a company that made charms for its shoes, for $10 million. But by 2007, stock prices sunk from a high of $75 to below $40. Distribution issues emerged, and the economy tanked. Crocs stock would rise again by 2010, but then drop in 2013 by more than 40% from the year before.
Just last summer, Crocs announced a drastic company restructuring that involved more than 100 store closings, a reduction in headcount, and a streamlined international strategy focused on just the six countries targeted in the #FindYourFun campaign—which brings us to the present and this new marketing push.
Technically, Crocs’ "Find Your Fun" slogan existed before McKinney was asked to make a $10 million ad campaign out of it. But, explains the agency's executive creative director Peter Nicholson, Crocs hadn't done much with it: "When I saw the line, I was like, 'That's great. Simple. Clear. Tells you what you do.' I told them, 'You guys need to lean into that. Visually, let's take the clog, the icon of the company, and turn that into an icon for fun.'"
"In terms of a shoe, they're an extrovert, they're energetic," he continues, addressing the #FindYourFun hashtag in particular. "Action and activity is what it stands for. When you think abut consumer interaction with a brand, that's the kind of connection you want to have. Not to over-promise, but we do want this to become a movement for people who want to celebrate having fun."
Time and again, ugly footwear has its moment in the sun, and we are certainly in the midst of one such moment. Birkenstocks and Tevas are on the feet of cool girls everywhere. In fact, fashion magazines have been heralding the return of ugly shoes for a couple of years now. Could Crocs follow suit, being praised by the likes of Vogue, just like the lowly Birkenstock? While trends are unpredictable, something—and often someone—very real drives them. When a person that matters is seen wearing a new, novel, or even ugly item, it gives everyone else permission to go for it too.
Tom Julien is a meticulous student of trends as the men's fashion director at The Doneger Group, a firm that tracks global trend intelligence. "When you tell a story using fashion, you have an opportunity to appeal to and attract the shopper," Julien explains. "Everyone said, 'Thank god for Jennifer Grey and Dirty Dancing' because it finally put a canvas shoe on the feet of women and girls who were only wearing high heels or athletic shoes. That became a little bit of the zeitgeist, in terms of an old shoe becoming new."
It's hard to say what the Dirty Dancing moment was for Crocs. People are much more likely to remember the times the shoe has been scorned rather than loved. Everyone from The Daily Showand Bill Maher to Newsweek and Time has weighed in. Maybe you've even read the I Hate Crocs blog.
"Everyone said, 'Thank god for Jennifer Grey and Dirty Dancing' because it finally put a canvas shoe on the feet of women and girls who were only wearing high heels or athletic shoes. That became a little bit of the zeitgeist, in terms of an old shoe becoming new."
But despite all that sustained venom, the brand boasts genuine and enthusiastic fans. In 2005, Footwear News voted Crocs Brand of the Year. "It's clear that the product really resonated with customers looking for something different," said Michael Altmore, the trade publication's editor, at the time. "This is a case of a new brand making an instant connection with the shopper."
In 2007, Crocs introduced the orange Bistro Mario Batali Edition. In one interview, Batali explains he loves Crocs in part because they allow him to flip the metaphorical bird (I'm paraphrasing here) to all his friends in the fashion world. Still, he’s a chef who wants comfortable feet. Non-cooking celebrities are a different issue.
Yet just this March, mere days after the WSJ article ran, came the crown jewel of celebrity endorsements: Dame Helen Mirren sang the praises of her comfortable Crocs as a guest on The Tonight Show. She was turned onto them by Alan Cumming, who had discussed the divisive shoe on Jimmy Fallon's show the week before. (It's worth noting this was also the same month model and certified Cool Girl Hanne Gaby Odiele Instagrammed a photo of herself in a pale pink pair.)
When Mirren made her Tonight Show appearance, she was wearing a regal purple dress with platform heels. Fallon handed her a gift: a pair of white Crocs with the Union Jack across the top. "Oh my god, I love them!" Mirren shrieked. "Oh, thank you! Will you sign them for me? I'm so proud of them!"
She kicked her heels off and slipped the white whales on her dainty feet. Leaning back in her chair, she stuck out her legs straight in front of her, like she was on her couch watching Masterpiece Theatre. "Ohhhhh yeahhhh," exhaled the Queen.
When I call CEO Gregg Ribbatt at Crocs HQ in Niwot, his energy level is high. There's a lot on his docket that day; after our call he'll be testing shoes from the spring/summer 2016 line.
Ribbatt believes he's unusual in the industry because he's a fourth-generation shoe man. His great-grandfather made cushioned insoles in his garage. His grandfather was a traveling shoe salesman. His dad dropped out of school to work in a shoe store.
After college, Ribbatt worked in banking, got his MBA at the University of Chicago, and then commenced his now-20-year run working in women's footwear, where, he says, he loved collaborating with teams to transform and build brands like Saucony and Keds.
At Crocs, he was drawn to the growth potential he saw, despite the company's notable setbacks. Ribbatt turns to figures to prove his point: the company is just 12 years old and has already shipped 300 million pairs of shoes, including 55 million in 2014 alone. The CEO says that the brand's peers—the world's top ten footwear brands—took decades to get to that level. Store closings and layoffs and a smaller focus might sound bad, but Ribbatt believes it will all make Crocs soar.
"The company and brand were focused on sales and growth versus consumer connection for a while," he explains. "Now we're focused on a new marketing campaign and strengthening our existing consumer connection. We are a democratic brand with a broad consumer base, but our focus is building stronger relationships."
"Consumer connection." Over and over, Ribbatt repeats different versions of the phrase. This could mean any number of things, so I have Ribbatt elaborate: "When we talk to consumers around the world, we hear five key attributes: color, relaxed, comfortable, distinctive, and fun."
Fun. There it is again.
"People look to buy products that reflect the state they want to be in," he continues, "and, for us, a core part of that is fun." A Croc is certainly nothing if not playful, and it's clear the flagship store in Herald Square is another attempt at that message.
Before Ribbatt has to go, he tells me about one more thing: the Crocs he's picked out for today, a top-secret prototype set to roll out next year that he describes as a dress casual shoe in chocolate brown.
"Dress casual, dress casual," Ribbatt emphasizes. "Dress is too far for our brand."
The time had finally come for me to try on some Crocs of my own. I drag myself to the train, dreading 34th Street, and emerge from the subway just as a bus with a large Croc and a #FindYourFun hashtag speed by me. I walk to the big green store and go inside.
Dozens of non-clog shoes are spread out before me: wedges, boat shoes, sandals, flats. I'm greeted by Mercedes, who has worked at the flagship store since it opened last year. She found the job on Craigslist and had never owned a pair of Crocs. "I hated the shoe," she says. "But then I got here and was like, 'Crocs are not just that ugly shoe, they're so much more.' Now I have eight pairs. I don't wear anything else."
Mercedes shows me a Croc that looks like an actual hamburger. It has a meat patty and a lettuce leaf and even a ring of ketchup, which has been fashioned into a heel strap. At the back of the store, a rainbow display of classic Crocs is mounted on the wall. They retail for $34.99. I go conservative, as this will be my first pair, and pick navy.
I find myself saying things like, "Oh my god. They're so light!" and also "I feel like a duck" and "These are pretty ugly." At this point Mercedes does me a solid and suggests that I try on the Kadee. It's flat and streamlined, the Croc for ladies who can't bear to go full Batali. It also comes in bajillion styles (20, according to Mercedes, including leopard).
I choose black, and that's when I really get on a roll: "Whoa. These are bouncy. I feel like I'm walking on the moon, man! Oh my god, this is crazy. It's like therapy for the foot. This is so funny!"
You get the picture. Muscles on my feet that I didn’t know existed feel like they're being massaged. Previously dead, they're alive with the Kadee.
"You'll find one or two shoes you really, really like and keep on buying them," promises Mercedes. "I'm a Stretch Soul girl."
She's just as enthusiastic about the #FindYourFun campaign: "Fun is to be happy, happy is to be comfortable. If you're not comfortable, you're not happy. You're not fun. If you do something that's nice and comfortable, you'll find your fun."
Standing in a pair of Crocs, my mood is lighter. I'm certainly relaxed. I'm not a convert, but I can appreciate what they stand for, or at least what the campaign wants them to stand for. I definitely no longer hate them. It is the last reality I expected, but it is mine.
As I exit the citrus-colored rocketship, the words of #FindYourFun architect Peter Nicholson run through my mind: "What I love about Crocs is that they're for everybody. There are no rules with Crocs, which is a really powerful ethos for a company. We all get a little uptight—everybody needs to let loose sometimes."