The Soul of the Sole

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For every Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche there are a hundred would-be philosophers destined for the dumpster of history, their musings more likely to inspire groans than insights. Who would have thought that Timberland, the boot maker of choice for outdoor lifestyle enthusiasts, would be joining their ranks?

No longer content just to market its premier product as the rugged, authentic boot that lasts forever and goes with anything, Timberland is now peddling cheap, feel-good doggerel along with its not-so-cheap footwear and apparel.

You've probably seen the print ads: black-and-white beauty shots of hiking boots caked with mud; weathered work boots on old planks of wood; text urging us to find our inner "greatness." Debuting in the New York Times Magazine last August as an eight-page insert-a full five pages of which were text-the ads exhorted readers to do something big with their lives, to release the little Braveheart huddled within. Laying the self-empowerment rap on thick, the ads ran in two-page installments in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Outside, and Fast Company in the August through November issues-a $10-million effort, according to Adweek.

While motivational speaking may be a new venture for Timberland, the company has long had a reputation for taking corporate responsibility seriously. The Stratham, New Hampshire-based manufacturer is known for contributing financial support to urban youth groups and for giving employees 40 paid hours a year to work as volunteers. The "Beliefs" campaign is supposed to take the Timberland credo one step further by urging consumers to follow the same path of civic-mindedness.

It's a nice thought. Unfortunately, the self-reverential ads ("This is not a marketing campaign, this is not an annual fund-raiser, this is not the task of a community relations department, it is the philosophy of this entire company") seem more an attempt to cash in on a P.C. reputation than any kind of earnest call to arms. Perhaps this is because nothing in the copy suggests actually doing anything beyond realizing how great you are and that underneath "the me-first layer and the get-out-of-my-way layer and the keep-your-hands-off-my-stuff layer, a halfway decent person is in there, waiting to be heard."

In fact, the ads are reminiscent of the "I'm OK, you're OK" doublespeak of 1970s pop gurus, reassuring us we're not just mediocre schlubs living mediocre lives, but heroes waiting to happen. Some philosophy. There's not a word in the text hastening us toward anything but self-satisfaction. Oh, and buying boots.

To be sure, if you really want to learn more about doing good, a toll-free number and Timberland's Web site address are there in plain sight (in the fine print at the bottom of the page). And yes, Timberland's Web site contains a link to SERVEnet, which provides information on volunteering in different communities. But mostly, the contact info serves as additional advertising opps for the company's products.

The phone number connects callers to a recording giving three options: order products, comment on the fall campaign, or get information on the company's return policy. In two separate calls, operators seemed confused by requests for information on volunteering. "This is a consumer line," said one customer-service rep. "We give help with warranties." With a little prompting, she suggested checking out the company's Web site. The second operator, after a bit of nudging, said, "We're encouraging people to get involved in their own communities."

It's hard not to conclude that Timberland is being just a tad disingenuous with its high-falutin' talk of heroism and deeply-held beliefs. The ads blow an attractive bubble of deliciously hot air, wherein acting like a great human being is reduced to feeling like a great human being. That's generally considered a no-no in philosophical circles, but in the world of advertising, it's not necessarily such a bad equation-Timberland certainly wouldn't be the first company attempting to create an amorphous, soft-and-fuzzy aura around its products. The goal of advertising, after all, is to sell, not to save the world. It's Timberland's coy attempt to have it both ways that is so grating.

Like most companies its size-1997 revenues topped $796 million-Timberland's appeal transcends easily defined demographic groups like Generation X, Baby Boomers or Echo Boomers. Wall Street analysts and company officials, unable to come to a consensus, offer a demographic ranging from 18 to 54 years old. Timberland's boots have been known to appeal to groups as disparate as inner-city teens, construction workers, yuppies, and dog-sled racers.

Core customers, however, have several key characteristics, analysts say: Often affluent, they aspire to an outdoor lifestyle, whether or not they actually spend time outdoors. They seek authenticity and heritage, a taste that borders on the nostalgic, wanting to feel the brands they choose stand for something. They want the "real thing," says Marcia Aaron, an analyst with BT Alex. Brown, who follows the company, "whether they need it or not." Perhaps most important, they each highly value their own sense of individuality.

The maddening vagueness of the ads allows Timberland to cater precisely to this hunger to be special without cramping consumers' style with specifics. Steering clear of any concrete claims, Timberland gives you plenty of room to transfer your own beliefs onto the product. In fact, to promote this sense of individuality, Timberland refrained from putting humans in the ads altogether. The photos are of footwear only, allowing readers to imagine themselves sliding into a pair, without ever running into a model as go-between.

The fact that most consumers probably wouldn't sludge through the text doesn't worry Timberland. Ken Freitas, vice president of social enterprise for the company, says since the ad "stood for something," people would "get it" even if they read only a few lines. Analysts agree. What is important is that consumers come away from the beautiful photographs and earnest-sounding copy with a sense of Timberland as the authentic boot maker for individualistic boot wearers. And chances are they will.

The reason: As ridiculous as it might be, the campaign still manages to push an awful lot of its core customers' buttons. Timberland's cut-rate philosophy might have made Socrates reach for the hemlock, but the image it promotes may be just the cup of inner peace today's consumers crave.

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