Sexing up low-interest category: Gold Toe retail push aims to make socks rock

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Gold Toe is out to make socks sexy.

The Burlington, N.C., footwear marketer has done little to no advertising in its 75-year history, according to Exec VP-Marketing Trish McHale, because most of its customers are very loyal. But they're also aging, leading Gold Toe after three quarters of a century to try and connect with new consumers using a slew of non-traditional marketing initiatives.

"It is a very low involvement category," admitted Ms. McHale, who single-handedly acts as the company's marketing department. "Most people can't tell you who they are wearing."

To make its name known, Gold Toe is spending up to $4 million this year in marketing, a 500-fold increase from prior years, she said. While still tiny by most marketers' standards, the budget is significant for a company that has until very recently been sales- and manufacturing-driven.

Gold Toe realized that with 90% of its sales occurring at the department store level, that's where it needs to drive consumer traffic. Two weeks ago, it split with Cole & Weber, Red Cell, Seattle, part of WPP Group, to work with Publicis Groupe-backed Bartle, Bogle Hegarty, New York, which has a strong retail offering developed in part because of its Levi's work. The agency is helping the company transform how Gold Toe is presented at the point-of-sale.

Jonathan Braaten, retail account director at Bartle Bogle, said he's looking at options including decals affixed to floors, wallpaper graphics used at point-of-sale along with new signage and whether booklets can be attached to the socks. "We talked about branding the heck out of the department."

sock emergency

When the marketer had advertised, it spent on print. But while Gold Toe split with Cole & Weber's ad division, it's sticking with the firm's PR unit.

Vicky Hastings, senior VP-director of public relations at Cole & Weber, said the agency is "looking into a guerrilla street event that harks back to the original days of the company, considering partnering with a non-profit to make a contribution and will be launching new products."

Last year Cole & Weber helped put Gold Toe on the fashion circuit by creating an "emergency sock kit" for fashion editors who generally made socks a low priority at shoots. By providing boxes of socks in advance, Gold Toe gained numerous credits including one from Conde Nast's GQ which put them on Outkast's Andre 3000. The agency also helped stage an autograph session with Yankee pitchman Mariano Rivera at Macy's, where customers were asked to buy $30 of socks to qualify for an autograph.

Have any of the PR efforts and limited advertising so far sold socks? Ms. McHale claims Gold Toe's business was up 6% in 2003 versus 2002 in dollar sales. She quotes NPD sales data for last year that show Gold Toe's market share edged up from 49.7% to 50.4%.

Branding expert Peter Harleman, chairman-CEO of Blue Mint Associates, San Francisco, said the effort can work. "In the world of branding anything is possible," he said, even though "Gold Toe doesn't leap to the top of mind."

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