The launch of the Chuck Taylor All Star II – the iconic canvas shoe’s first extension – has been well-played by Nike, mostly because it ceded the spotlight to subsidiary Converse, say consumer PR pros.
Converse struggled for years in bankruptcy protection before being bought by Nike in 2003 and turned around. In the fiscal year that ended in May, Converse’s sales increased 21%, reaching $2 billion for the first time.
The new shoe also represents the first public collaboration between the two brands; Nike used its own technology to improve the Chuck Taylor’s cushioning and make other enhancements.
While this was the main news hook for the rollout – the shoe looks almost identical to the beloved original that debuted 98 years ago – a press release about the launch only mentions Nike twice and instead focuses on how Converse supports a creative lifestyle.
A video seeded online by Converse also makes no mention of Nike directly, instead serving as a visual showcase for the Chuck II.
The company also only made Converse executives available to the media. Most of its messaging focuses on the fact that the shoe, which first came to fame when basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a 1962 game – hasn’t changed all that much.
"We redesigned everything, yet redesigned nothing," Converse brand VP Geoff Cottrill said in an interview with CNN. And in an interview with Fast Company, he also stated how careful the brand was to preserve the aesthetic of the shoe.
"You better believe New Coke came up in meetings," Cottrill, a former Coca-Cola exec, told the magazine in reference to the consumer outcry in the 1980s when Coke changed the formula of its flagship soft drink.
Kirk Stewart, who spent more than eight years as VP of global corporate comms at Nike, applauds the launch strategy.
"This is a brand that has been worn for generations; the Nike role didn’t need to be overplayed given how iconic Chuck Taylor is with its audience," says Stewart, now CEO of corporate communications consultancy KTStewart. "So while the news is that the shoe uses some Nike technology, they really made it about the Converse brand and Chuck Taylor, which was a brilliant thing to do."
Kimberly Eberl, president and founder of Motion PR, says Nike’s marketing is typically associated with star athlete endorsements, but that’s not a fit for Converse. Although Chuck Taylor started out as a basketball shoe, it became the footwear of choice for the artistic community, worn by grunge stars such as Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in the 1990s to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs more recently.
"Converse is about self-expression, and I feel any movement by Nike or a campaign that felt like it was from Nike could have ruined the authenticity of the brand," says Eberl. "If the communications was handled in a corporate vein with typical and predictable PR tactics, I think advocates of the brand would be running to the hills saying, ‘What have they done? I miss my old Converse.’"
She concludes, "It seems like Nike’s fingerprints are off [the relaunch] in terms of PR and marketing," she states.
Terri Hines, VP of global communications at Converse, tells PRWeek, "We were not only careful, but surgical in the development of the story for Chuck II."
On July 23, Converse staged a global media event in the brand’s hometown of Boston, where the new incarnation was unveiled. More than 130 members of the media from New York and Sao Paulo to Berlin and Shanghai flew in for the event, which was teased online as part of a social media plan, says Hines. The company’s strategy emphasized broadcast and digital media.
"It was critical that the Chuck II story resonate around the globe, so for the media moment, we wanted to create a dynamic experience that not only told the story of the sneaker, but helped invited media understand the Converse DNA," she explains. "It was also important for us that media interviews were properly paired with key spokespeople and that interviews touched business, design, lifestyle, culture and more."
Hines adds: "We will continue to look for ways to tell the Chuck II story in the media, especially in the lead up to back-to-school and then for the holiday season."
She notes any efforts would tie into the "Made by You" ad campaign launched globally earlier this year, which features portraits of people wearing Chuck Taylor All Stars. They include regular people, as well as notables such as singer-songwriter Patti Smith and GQ’s "The Style Guy" Glenn O'Brien.
PR pros say the debut of the Chuck II could become a case study for how to relaunch an iconic product, pointing out the brand has quickly sold out in most colors and sizes online.
Erika Kauffman, partner and GM at 5W Public Relations, contends this campaign is a win for Nike in another way, because its success "positions them as a thought leader in terms of innovation and style, which is where they need to be."
"I didn’t even know Nike owned Chuck Taylor until this news, and I suspect much of the general public probably didn’t," she says. "As much as they weren’t front and center, this still adds a nice leg to the Nike story."