Sperry Turns To Athletes To Reconnect With Male Audience

  • Boating shoe maker worked with 12 pro athletes in 2019 after gaining little traction with style influencers.
  • E-commerce has increased 20% in the past year on higher traffic, company says.
Photo Credit: Benji Bear Photography
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Since its launch in 1935, Sperry has long been the footwear brand of choice for males interested in boating and waterside activities.

Now the boat shoe brand is looking to re-engage that audience through athlete influencers.

While Sperry aims to be a shoe for multiple audiences, in recent years it slowly lost traction with male consumers while making significant headway into the female market, according to Melissa Romig, digital marketing director at Sperry. At one point, female consumers were roughly the company’s biggest audience.

Sperry began to retrench and work with style influencers to target both male and female consumers when it made an unusual discovery. 

Social media engagement rates with Sperry athletes more than doubled what the company saw from typical style influencers, Romig said.

Two specific athletes generated response rates four times higher than Sperry’s standard response rate, which is now leading the company to move forward in 2020 with more athlete influencer activity.

“We just weren’t getting as much response from our male audience when we were working with those male style influencers,” Romig said. “Our products – they’re not high fashion and high style, and we just wanted to reach into the average American male audience. We were thinking about different ways we could do that, and of course, sports came up as a significant interest for people, and men in particular.”

In the third quarter of 2019, Sperry ran a test with Bleacher Report by sponsoring its “Stick to Football” podcast. The hosts did live reads detailing the media company’s Sperry involvement while also promoting it on their individual Twitter accounts, Romig said. 

Sperry also supplied Bleacher Report with a custom barcode for listeners to use. While Romig declined to comment on how much revenue this first affiliation with the sports industry generated, the results suggested a potentially fruitful future. 

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“Typically, when we give influencers or other people custom codes, we don’t see a ton of movement on those custom codes,” Romig said. “The code that [Bleacher Report] was using saw more than double what our normal redemption rate would be.”

“We got some great responses from their followers to our products, so we were really happy with that performance from that Bleacher Report program,” Romig added.

Sperry saw growth in its e-commerce business during the third quarter of 2019, its highest quarterly growth all year and driven by increases across all regions, the company said in its earnings report. Its e-commerce business rose more than 20% and was primarily driven by increased traffic. Sperry’s in-store sales growth also increased by more than 20% with both new stores and improved conversion serving as a boon.

“We’re pleased with the momentum in the Sperry business and we expect attractive double-digit growth in the fourth quarter, driven by a strong boot offering and a favorable inventory position to support this growth,” Blake Krueger, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Wolverine World Wide, Inc., said on the 2019 third quarter earnings call.

After its work with “Stick to Football,” Sperry went a step further in sports by diving deeper into the influencer space. It began by joining OpenSponsorship, a sponsorship marketing platform that helps connect brands with athletes. Romig estimates that one-third of all professional athletes are registered on the New York City-based website. 

Sperry used OpenSponsorship to put the word out to male athletes to promote its men’s boots. Applications came in abundance, and Sperry ultimately decided to do work with 12 athletes. They were: J.J. Barea (Dallas Mavericks); Justin Bethel (New England Patriots); Josh Dixon (United States Olympic gymnast); Michele Forgione (golf); C.J. Gardner-Johnson (New Orleans Saints); Parker Kligerman (former NASCAR driver); Chris Mazdzer (U.S. Olympic luger); Ryan McElmon (skier); Nate Miceli (skier); Nick Symmonds (track); Nate Stupar (football); and Chris Viali (baseball).

According to Dixon, rising through the ranks in gymnastics to competing at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose for Team USA enabled him to leverage his visibility to put together unique business opportunities. The process of working with Sperry on marketing its duck boots gave him the chance to engage with a brand that he had been wearing since he was a student-athlete at Stanford.

“I think Sperry is wise to get into [the sports] space, and I’ve seen it with a ton of other players,” Dixon said. “But give Sperry credit: they are a solid product that presents itself very well and does have multi-disciplinary use. It’s a natural plug-in-and-play with athletics and the athletic world.”

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Outside of Sperry, Symmonds has done business with notable shoe companies like Brooks, Nike, and Under Armour. What drew him to Sperry was the ability to work with a lifestyle brand that is still entrenched in the footwear space. It allowed him to display his authenticity and easily connect with a brand that he could envision associating himself with. 

“I only push products that I believe in and what I wear in real life, so Sperry’s an easy one,” Symmonds said. “I get approached by footwear companies or apparel companies weekly, and I say no to 90% of them because I wouldn’t wear it in my own life, in my practice. Sperry is a no brainer because it’s a great quality product and I wear it when I’m not getting paid to.”

In 2020, Romig and Sperry are already in the process of creating another program with OpenSponsorship featuring a different group of athletes, including Symmonds. Working with other athletes will enable the company to diversify its sports audience and portfolio, Romig said.

Whereas last year saw Dixon and Symmonds wearing Sperry duck boots, the upcoming campaign will see athlete influencers repping its famous boat shoes. The New campaign is expected to roll out in spring with subsequent launches during the fall and winter. 

“What we’re finding out, which isn’t ground-breaking or earth-shattering, is that for our male audience sports is a great way to reach them,” Romig said. “For the majority of our male audience, they aren’t reading about style articles and GQ every day, but they might be reading about sports every day, checking the stats and listening to the news. That’s just a great way to reach into the audience with a lot more frequency.”

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