Green footwear firm marches on in China

Timberland is enjoying 25pc annual growth in the country, and the environmentally-friendly company's iconic boots look set to spread

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 3:11am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 3:11am

The iconic Timberland yellow boot first went from its humble workman's roots in New Hampshire to the streets of New York City in step with rappers like DMX and Wu-Tang Clan in the 1990s. Then, after expanding across the globe from Europe to Japan, in 2006 it found a new market in China, where it now enjoys 25 per cent annual growth.

What creates such an enduring appeal for the casual outdoor shoe and apparel company?

Founded by Nathan Swartz, the company first gained currency when it found a way of fusing soles to leather uppers without stitching to produce the first truly waterproof shoes. The style was so popular the name of the boot, "Timberland", eventually replaced the original company name, Abington Shoe.

The original Timberland boot is still the company's bestselling product, though Timberland has expanded into other "rugged yet refined" apparel and accessories.

Just after celebrating the company's 40th anniversary, Asia-Pacific managing director Stewart Whitney talks to the South China Morning Post about how Timberland keeps abreast of youth culture, selling an outdoor lifestyle to mainland consumers despite heavy pollution, and how green technology is a key commitment, not a fad, for the firm.


We know that we’re leading the market when it comes to green technologies

How are customers in Hong Kong and on the mainland using your products compared to Western customers? Are there particular styles that resonate with them?

I think in general, shopping is like a sport in Asia. Asians are looking for something more forward in style or fashion. Second, I think you see a lot of colour and then of course the weather differences, so you'll see differences in the weight of apparel or insulation. In America or Europe, where you've got longer seasonality, the boot business is a little bit bigger, but here it is a buy-now-wear-now-type product.

Without question, the products are going to be used for everyday lifestyle but our products are extremely versatile. You can dress it up or dress it down; it can take you out in the streets or out in the trails. You can buy a casual shoe from someone else but it won't have that performance characteristic or be made in that earth-friendly way that is becoming more and more meaningful to people today.

Most consumers in China live in cities and it's difficult to get to the outdoors but we do build it with the intent to be able to go outdoors.


As Timberland expands into more clothing and accessories, how do you position the brand against others like North Face?

We bring a different dimension that is more everyday lifestyle as opposed to North Face, which is a leading brand in the world in performance outdoor. Do we build products that can take you to Antarctica or the top of the Himalayas? Yes, but those products are a smaller focus. North Face is all about ultimate performance, athlete-tested products.

We've created a head-to-toe concept or toe-to-head, as we like to say, since we start with the shoes. About half of our business is from footwear and half from apparel and accessories. That's important because people buy apparel more frequently than footwear. I think we've achieved the right balance. We just want to grow both.


What is the company's expansion strategy for the mainland?

We plan to open 60 to 70 stores on the mainland on an annual basis. It will mostly be in tier three cities but we still have plenty of opportunity in tiers one and two. We really need to establish a critical mass in those cities.

It is easy to just open lots of stores indiscriminately. That's the challenge in China: balance the tremendous growth potential by distribution, and grow and develop a brand presence. Those two aren't always aligned. It's easier to go out and open up lots of stores, but to do it where the awareness is much lower and is just getting into the market is a challenge.


Has the Timberland business been affected by the severe pollution on the mainland? The government has asked people to stay indoors and not exercise outside.

I know that there is a tremendous problem, in Beijing in particular. I wouldn't suggest it's affecting sales. I think there's recognition from the government [that this is a problem]. What's interesting is that China is the No1 consumer of energy but is also now the No1 consumer of renewable energy.

It's good to see that the government is taking steps. On the other hand, the industry has to do something as well, so positioning ourselves as being friendly to the earth and promoting an active healthy lifestyle is the right way to go.

We know that we're leading the market when it comes to green technologies. It's part of our ethos and DNA. One, we are an outdoor company and our logo is a tree.

One of the interesting things is the Earthkeepers category. It is our greenest product and represents about 60 per cent of our revenue today. It's the biggest category we have in every market. The lesson from that is if we build a great product that looks good and performs well, along with doing it in a green and friendly way, it can win in every market.

It started with one product, the Earthkeeper boot, and now it's a half-a-billion-dollar product. All our footwear includes the green index, which talks about the climate impact and energy use of each product we make. Our Earthkeeper boot scores the lowest - lowest being the best or having the lowest impact.


Hip hop has been quite influential in the popularity of the brand. How has Timberland leveraged that pop culture connection?

It's not something we ever pushed. I think of it not as hip hop but as youth culture. I think what is unique about Timberland is it is one of the very few companies that has an iconic product. When people see this product [the yellow boot], they know it's Timberland. You know it's Timberland from 20 or 30 yards.

My wife and I play a little game when we walk through the mall to see how long it takes to see somebody with Timberlands. It's usually less than two to three minutes. In Hong Kong, it's usually couples - matching, or sometimes the female has got roll-tops and the male has got the classic.

Timberland has been able to remain relevant no matter what is going on in youth culture at the time. It's hard to market to youth culture. It was in the 70s when Timberland started showing up in universities in New England and was adopted by the hip hop community. If we were just about hip hop, we would've accelerated sales and died right there. That hasn't happened.

Our business is very big in Japan and hip hop has never been the dynamic in Japan, it's been about street. We want to continue to be relevant to our young consumers and the best way we've found to do that is to stay true to ourselves and build DNA, what you stood for from the beginning. If you are not authentic, youth today finds out about it really quickly.


How important is being green to your value proposition?

Customers tell us they want to live an active healthy lifestyle. They like being able to escape and they want to enjoy the outdoors to de-stress because they lead very stressful lives.

Society is all about excelling and moving forward. They are doing that at a rapid pace, probably at a pace never seen before in the history of mankind. At the same time, all that growth is leading to certain ecological challenges. I hear more and more from consumers that they need to get out and escape, the rat race if you will. We're trying to do our part and we think it makes a difference.