LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Color him daring.
Skechers Fitness Group President Leonard Armato took a chance last year on a last-minute Super Bowl advertising opportunity for Skechers' Shape-Ups toning shoes -- and came up lucky.
The company's 15-second spots, featuring customer testimonials and NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana, were far from the tricked-out spectacles most ads delivered that night. "We didn't have a spot ready, so we didn't throw a creative masterpiece on the game," said Mr. Armato, president-chief marketing officer of Skechers Fitness Group. "We put the voice of Joe Montana on to see if men would be interested in the idea of getting more out of every step and everyday fitness. But then men actually started buying it."
Skechers sales soared 30% last year to more than $2 billion, due at least in part to that last-minute Super Bowl buy, according to Mr. Armato.
Taking some risks seems to be de rigueur for the former sports agent and ex-CEO of the Association of Volleyball Professionals. With more than 25 years worth of experience in sports marketing and events, Mr. Armato joined Skechers in March 2010 as its president-CMO of fitness. He brought with him established relationships with athletes such as Mr. Montana, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Karl Malone, all of whom have served as spokesmen for Shape-Ups.
This year Skechers is returning to the Super Bowl with a new celebrity spokeswoman, Kim Kardashian, in a spot that will air after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. "The idea is that Kim Kardashian is going to break someone's heart in front of 100 million people," teased Mr. Armato, 57. "It'll be a little bit like art imitating life."
The new relationship comes as Skechers becomes a larger player in the athletic footwear and apparel industry. In 2010 it became the No. 2 footwear brand in the U.S. -- second to Nike, according to Sports Market Intelligence -- and spent $103.8 million on measured media from January to November, according to Kantar Media. And that's all without a dedicated CMO or agency of record. Mr. Armato shares his marketing duties with Skechers founder-CEO Robert Greenberg. The company also has its own creative director, Kristen Van Cott, a Disney and Paramount veteran who oversees original-content division Skechers Entertainment.
Mr. Armato caught up with CMO Strategy to discuss more plans for the year ahead.
Ad Age: The toning-shoe category has gotten more competitive and more scrutinized. Earlier this month, Reebok was taken to task by the Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Division over misleading claims in its ads. How do you make sure your messaging is accurate yet still catchy?
Mr. Armato: We have a patented technology in Shape-Ups, our kinetic-wedge technology that provides a simulated walking-in-sand experience. Intuitively, you know it's going to allow you to get more out of every step, which is our catchphrase. We've had about 15,000 testimonials unsolicited from people who have worn Skechers Shape-Ups, which speak for themselves.
Ad Age: Skechers also recently made a successful, if controversial, debut in original kids' programming last fall with Skechers Entertainment's "Zevo-3" series on Nicktoons. How do you achieve marketing goals with that property given the strict FCC guidelines on kids' TV?
Mr. Armato: With "Zevo-3," we're just looking to create a standalone property, a compelling piece of content, with all the different regulations in mind. We're making sure we're following them and operating within the rules, but it's really about the characters and the content and not trying to market anything to anyone. Any show that has significant popularity ultimately will become marketable on various levels.
Ad Age: Your other big play for the kids' audience, Twinkle Toes sneakers, debuted to promising sales last year and seems to be a big priority for 2011 -- you recently announced an upcoming Happy Meal partnership with McDonald's. What was the market opportunity in entering the kids' space?
Mr. Armato: Little girls love things that sparkle, so this is an opportunity to capture their imagination with a product that looks expensive and is reasonably priced. ... It's a significant piece of business and one we hope to continue to maintain and grow.
Ad Age: Skechers has yet to hire a formal agency of record. Why has going it alone been the right approach for the company, from a marketing perspective?
Mr. Armato: We usually develop our marketing strategies internally because we are intimately familiar with the Skechers brand and all the unique value propositions associated with products that we develop. We have an in-house advertising and graphics department, under the direction of Jason Greenberg, that creates imagery for Skechers. We can always draw from that in-house resource.
Ad Age: With all these different products and target audiences, it seems like Skechers is trying to be all things to all people. Can a shoe company do that these days?
Mr. Armato:It's really a question of messaging to the different targets and how you do that most effectively. When we reach out to Twinkle Toes customers, they're probably not aware that we're marketing to others about athletic footwear, and when we're building a Shape-Ups campaign, we're talking to a different consumer and have to speak with them in a way that's different and engaging. One thing that's exciting is that Skechers has generated a lot of trust in the minds of consumers because we've delivered on the promise to build footwear that is effective for the purpose intended.
Ad Age: What's the biggest mistake you've learned from as a marketer?
Mr. Armato The biggest mistake is not to make enough little mistakes. I'd like to try more things and be more innovative but with all the new ways of reaching people and the demands upon all of us marketers, it is very challenging to keep up with all the engagement techniques and identify the ones to employ. ... Another mistake any true marketer or entrepreneur can make is not to follow your instincts and fight hard enough when you believe in something. It's easy to back down in the face of contrary opinion -- especially if you are expressing a minority or unfamiliar viewpoint. Any marketer or entrepreneur has to be willing to put their neck on the line for what they believe in. It's not a job for the faint-hearted.