I recently ran across an online ad for Converse Chuck Taylors, which caused me to think about the resurgence of the Converse brand. I remember watching the Boston Celtics as a child in the ’70s when the entire team was clad in their Kelly green Converse high-tops. With the emergence of more advanced shoe offerings from Puma, Adidas and Nike, Converse faded from the scene, eventually filing for bankruptcy in 2001. You’d never know it now with the prevalence of Converse-clad celebrities and hipsters. The one-time performance brand has become an iconic fashion brand.
Contrast that with LA Gear – another brand I remember fondly from my younger years. I was in college when LA Gear was at its peak, and I coveted those sparkly athletic shoes that I never broke a sweat in. Like Converse, LA Gear fell from its heyday and is still around. However, that’s where the similarities end. Today LA Gear shoes can be found at discount retailers, and the brand does not share Converse’s prestige.
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So what went right for Converse and wrong for LA Gear?
Converse had its share of brand management missteps but enjoys very strong consumer brand perceptions. I believe a major contributor to Converse’s longevity is the depth and strength of the brand’s heritage. The company started out to serve a utilitarian need – to use rubber soles on shoes for traction. In 1917 the company launched a basketball-specific shoe. In both cases, performance was a driving factor in the product’s purpose. Four years after Converse introduced the basketball shoe, it acquired its first celebrity endorser in basketball player Chuck Taylor. Taylor was actually a salesperson for the company and an ambassador for the brand from 1921-1969. The shoes became ubiquitous in the NBA until the 1970s, when strong competition emerged.
With decades of association with performance, the NBA and scores of individual players formed strong positive consumer brand perceptions. When the performance of Converse shoes was eclipsed by that of the competition, sales dwindled until nostalgia and nonconformity became the driving forces behind the brand’s resurgence. Converse’s brand repositioning seems to be more circumstantial than strategic, but I believe the brand’s deep heritage has allowed it to become what it is today.
There were a variety of forces that contributed to the downfall of LA Gear, from poor distribution channel strategy decisions to shifting consumer tastes. Those factors aside, LA Gear never developed a deep or broad brand story or lasting heritage. The shoe was designed for fashion, and the brand communication strategy didn’t go deeper than that. When consumer tastes started shifting, LA Gear tried to break into completely different market segments – men’s performance athletic and leisure shoes. Those efforts failed to deliver on the three key criteria of a good brand position – that it be meaningful, credible and differentiated. The LA Gear brand was not meaningful to the target audience in the way it was intended, the quality of the shoes was not up to par with the positioning and they didn’t offer any other positive differentiator from the competition.
Converse has remained true to itself, benefitting from a long history of established brand perceptions and emotional connections, while LA Gear tried to be something it is not and alter brand perceptions based on messaging alone. As in many cases, a consistent, meaningful and differentiated position builds brands with lasting appeal.