Two brothers from Switzerland, Art and Ernie Brunner, were dissatisfied with the selection of tennis shoes available. So, in 1966 in California, they released the first all-leather tennis shoe — the Classic — and K-Swiss was born.
Forty-four years later, in 2010, global president for K-Swiss, David Nichols, and creative director for ad agency 72andSunny, Matt Murphy, were dissatisfied with the brand recognition K-Swiss had in the crowded 18- to 24-year-old athletic trainer market.
“We had two goals for the K-Swiss brand: to create buzz and change people’s minds on who they thought K-Swiss was,” Nichols said. “K-Swiss hadn’t been part of the conversation with the young Internet-savvy audience in a while, and we wanted to change that.”
“K-Swiss was a brand known for it’s all-white leather training shoe, but it had almost no brand recognition with high school seniors and college freshmen,” Murphy added.
With a mountain to climb and few resources, K-Swiss would have to pull off another first to build awareness for its new line of athletic footwear.
Murphy was well aware of the competitive risks.
“We didn’t have a ton of money, we couldn’t hire a megastar athlete because they were all scooped up, so we knew we would have to pull some judo moves and stunt the marketing playbook,” said Murphy. “We asked ourselves, what if we signed a fake athlete to our roster, someone who was ultra competitive and had all the characteristics you would want in an athlete spokesperson?”
With a new product rollout focused around its Tubes shoe line, this was the perfect opportunity for K-Swiss to use online video marketing to do something disruptive.
“We believed in the new product and we were looking for a spokesperson who was unfiltered, would offer straight talk on how awesome the shoes were, and say what was on their mind,” Nichols added.
The idea that popped up in conversations was to bring in Kenny Powers, an edgy, washed-up baseball player from the HBO show “Eastbound and Down.” After its first season in 2009 “Eastbound and Down” had become a cult hit.
Nichols was excited about the project, but had his doubts. “This is a great idea that will never work. But let’s try it!” he remembered thinking.
“It was a magical journey partnering with HBO and Danny McBride (the actor portraying Powers). HBO had never released one of their characters for commercial use before. We asked how we could benefit all the parties involved, aligned our agendas, and were able to create something that was far greater than a typical celebrity endorsement,” Murphy said.
What K-Swiss and 72andSunny learned over the next three years of online video campaigns could serve as a marketing playbook for any business. Three overarching online video strategy tips guided their efforts:
Stay True to the Brand, Even When Taking Risks
Turning loose a character like Kenny Powers as the “MFCEO” would seem like a giant risk for any company. K-Swiss was confident, however, that it was staying true to the brand while creating an opportunity for something exciting to happen.
“We never set out to create advertising,” Murphy said. “We were blurring the lines between marketing and entertainment.”
The initial Kenny Powers CEO videos were an extension of the character Danny McBride played on “Eastbound and Down,” and allowed the playful side of the K-Swiss brand to interact with entertaining content.
“We are a challenger, and the only way we are going to get noticed is to do something different. We didn’t want to be a Nike junior. That wasn’t going to do much for us. We are playful folk and in some ways wanted to mock the process of sponsorship a little bit,” added Nichols.
In staying true to its core values, K-Swiss had found a competitive advantage.
Use Online Channels for Effective Targeted Distribution
One obvious concern in creating Kenny Powers content was the vulgarity the character uses.
“We realize that swearing polarizes people, but we had the background of the script and character to guide us. It was shocking, but not for shock value. We were being true to the character,” Murphy said.
One critical part of the campaign was focusing the videos into specific online channels.
Targeting the edgier videos to audiences that appreciated that style of humor allowed for stronger interaction with viewers.
Break from Tradition, Be Bold and New
Breaking tradition is part of the culture at both K-Swiss and its agency, 72andSunny, but the concept can be tough to learn for any organization.
“Don’t follow trends, Murphy said. “Figure out what the DNA of your own brand is and what is right and true about your company.”
”You have to find a way to break through the clutter,” Nichols added. “Don’t be a ‘me too’ company. Try to be unique.”
With so many companies copying each other, the opportunity to do something dramatically different is wide open.
Looking at K-Swiss’s online video campaign with Kenny Powers, there are several additional lessons to be learned.
“I’ll be the first to go on record and say we didn’t sell as many shoes as we would have liked to, but we did get more people talking about us,” said Nichols. “We had the highest jump in buzz in Footwear News, increased our search ranking, hits to our website, and increased sales. We did all of this with efficient media buys and were able to reach people without having to pay for TV time.”
“In a very hard demographic with a lot of competition, people now know about K-Swiss and see them as fun and willing to take chances,” Murphy said.
After a three year run, we probably won’t see any more of Kenny Powers, MFCEO, but neither Murphy nor Nichols will rule out a return of the brash-talking mulleted pitcher.
“Maybe we can partner with South Park for a ‘Who Killed Kenny?’ campaign,” joked Nichols.
Looks like K-Swiss might be on the lookout for another edgy CEO.