Once the darling of the skinhead and grunge crowd, and of celebrities from Madonna and Avril Lavigne to the Pope, trendsetters are stepping into softer, athletic-style footwear instead of Dr. Martens and its famous work boots. "Their challenge is no different from Levi's," said one veteran shoe-marketing executive. "They haven't found the hook" to reach the fickle teen audience, he said. While strong in Texas and the Midwest, the brand had lost its place among fashionistas on the coasts.
Dr. Martens is a unit of R. Griggs Ltd., headquartered in London.
In an effort to reconnect with teen and 20-something influencers, Dr. Martens this month breaks its first campaign in four years, an estimated $10 million global effort centered on six mini-documentaries breaking on the Web. Each tells the story of individuals who, as the tagline states, "Veer outside of ordinary."
In the five-minute black-and-white films, director Doug Pray -- the Littleton, Colo.-born director of the hip-hop documentary Scratch -- explores the souls of a variety of people with unusual jobs or avocations.
In Sidewalk Gallery, Mr. Pray follows a London painter who creates dozens of abstract self-portraits and then gives them away by placing them along London's sidewalks. In one scene, a passerby takes a painting and tosses it into
a trash can. The artist says that's OK, because the passerby is making a statement about art. Other subjects include a rock band audio technician, a struggling female DJ, a maimed London motorcycle messenger, and a structural engineer who climbs to the top and rappels down the world's tallest bridge to check for problems.
Unlike the Web films for BMW, which showed off its cars in high-speed auto chases, Dr. Martens shoes aren't highlighted or even mentioned in these highly personal stories. The only sign of advertising is a production line that reads "A Dr. Martens films project."
Bobbie Parisi, Dr. Martens' global marketing director, said the marketer turned to the documentaries in its brand campaign because Dr. Martens "is known for originality and individuality" and the films "are more authentic and honest and parallel our brand. We have created a media to talk to our consumers," an 18- to 35-year-old target of men and woman, she said. Those selected for the documentaries underscored "real working-class values" and had a "fearless passion about life."
Vince Engel, co-founder and creative director at BuderEngel and Friends, an independent San Francisco agency, said the film format was chosen -- and the brand kept to a lower profile -- to "target influencers" found on the coasts.
Print ads appearing in titles such as Fader, Surface, Res, BlackBook %%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% and ReadyMade direct readers to drmartens.com. Ms. Parisi said the documentaries are being re-edited into a film to air on Spike TV in February, the Independent Film Channel and as guerilla showings on the sides of buildings a la Cinema Paradisio. The films will be shown to the college crowd at 75 schools through Sports Illustrated's campus magazines and it also will screen at 15 other colleges. In the spring Dr. Martens will have a 15-page insert in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, featuring individuals from the films and showing the product.
The project is one of the first major works from BuderEngel, a year-old agency bought back by its managers after Leagas Delaney shuttered its San Francisco office. Leagas Delaney works with the Dr. Martens brand in London.
After losing money in 2002, the privately held footwear company looked to turn its fortunes around by 2007. Dr. Martens brought in new management, including Ms. Parisi, a former Nike executive, and regrouped its design and marketing team in London, leaving only U.S. sales and marketing executives in Portland, Ore. Starting from the ground up, it has overhauled its manufacturing process, moving it from Europe to Asia, where Dr. Martens has been able to put more flexibility into the type of shoes it designs, as well as into the stiff materials used in its hard-to-break-in work shoes. Even its trademark 1460 shoe will be sold with a softer leather, making them ready to wear and without the need to be broken in for a couple of weeks, a concept unfamiliar to today's youth who grew up wearing soft sneakers and athletic shoes. The marketer is even considering a program to allow buyers to personalize a pair of Dr. Martens by adding their names to the shoe's trademark tags.
The brand also may add leather accessories such as handbags and belts to its line, as well as apparel, Ms. Parisi said. "We're already seeing our business improve," she said.