Keds kicks discount to curb

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In 2005, Keds Corp. hopes to be more fashion than function, moving away from its traditional soccer-mom approach and instead making its casual shoes cool among 20-something style mavens.

Sales for the Stride Rite unit dropped 10% in the recent quarter, a decline that Keds' VP-Marketing Jennifer Weiderman attributes to efforts to pull the brand out of discount retailers as part of its higher fashion "re-imaging."

In addition to pushing hard to regain share in better department stores, such as Nordstrom's, and branching into upscale specialty stores like Barney's and Fred Segal, Keds will more than double its roughly $4 million media outlay next year with a campaign featuring celebrity spokesperson Mischa Barton of "The O.C." That campaign, which breaks in February, will extend the brand beyond its typical older-skewing lifestyle magazines into teen-fashion and shopping titles and even alternative publications and online sites to reach trendsetters.

Ms. Weiderman said that while Keds previously has "talked well to the 40-year-old, even 50-year-old," the brand has failed to gain relevancy among the crucial 19-to-25-year-old consumers who are the key influencers of fashion and footwear today.

The two-year deal with Ms. Barton, announced last month, is expected to help foster the idea that Keds is a cool fashion choice for the younger set. But Fallon Worldwide trend analyst Tom Julian said that success reaching fashion mavens "can't just be a one-hit wonder of celebrity endorsement with a few [new] styles here and there." He suggested that to be successful, like recent brand makeovers for Lacoste, Penguin and Le Tigre, the relaunch has to offer fashionistas something more than just the Classic Keds, "a different look, feel and story."

new products

In fact, Ms. Weiderman said, new-product development is a key part of the strategy, building on the heritage of being an American sneaker brand since 1916 with new colors and details as well as styles. Among them are a new slip-on ballet flat and a remake of a vintage 1930s Keds that were created for Martin Scorsese's upcoming "The Aviator." Ms. Barton will be shown wearing a variety of the newer styles in six different creative executions of the campaign and on a dedicated Web site. Internet advertising will also be key as "fashion mavens spend more than 20 hours a week online," Ms. Weiderman said. Toth Brand Imaging, Concord, Mass., handles Keds.

Keds' timing may be just right. Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group, said that while the casual-footwear market has been saturated recently with nearly 100 brands trying to jump on the "athleisure" trend, "in a few months the number of entries will be cut by a third at least." At that point, brands like Keds, with a positioning true to their core, will reap the benefits of the expanded market, especially if they can reintroduce themselves to young consumers and not just rely on the nostalgia of baby boomers.

Gaining relevancy also drove the recent licensing partnership between the Pro-Keds brand with urban-apparel marketer Rocawear.

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