Meet the Experientialists: Geoff Cottrill, Converse's Secret Social Weapon

Shoe Brand Is the Third Most-Liked Brand on Facebook

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Geoff Cottrill, Converse
Geoff Cottrill, Converse

This is the first in a series of profiles on notable players in the world of experiential marketing. Tune in the rest of the week for stories on San Diego agency Vitro's Director of Experiential Marc Wilson, Chobani Director of Experiential Ted Sabarese and Adam Joseph, co-founder of experiential and multiplatform production studio Legs.

With more than 39.6 million Facebook fans, Converse has more than those of parent company Nike and Adidas combined. Overall, it's the third most-liked brand on the social platform, behind only Coca-Cola and Red Bull, according to social-media-analytics firm Social Bakers. At the heart of it all is Converse's experiential-marketing pro, VP-General Manager of Brand and Segments Geoff Cottrill. But he's the last to admit it.

That's because when it comes to Converse marketing, Mr. Cottrill, 50, who recently moved into his current role after serving as CMO for more than six years, said that the brand takes the back burner to the consumer. "One of our basic principles is that we try to celebrate our audience, not ourselves," said Mr. Cottrill, who until his current role was CMO for more than six years. That philosophy has manifested in some of the brand world's most-innovative experiential efforts, like Converse's Rubber Tracks Studio. Launched more than two years ago in Brooklyn's trendy Williamsburg neighborhood with the help of agency Cornerstone, it provides free recording studio space and services to fledgling music artists. The studio has served more than 900 talents since launch and has expanded with global pop-ups in cities from Austin and Los Angeles to Beijing and Rio de Janeiro. Converse also plans to open another permanent Rubber Tracks Studio in Boston next year.

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The goal of the studio, Mr. Cottrill said, is not to groom the next idol. Rather, it's about providing the Converse core demographic -- musicians -- with an unforgettable experience that aims to get them advocating the brand. "It's less about putting a number on it and more about realizing that people have always been media. We've provided musicians with experiences they'll never forget. The measurement is that. We're building ambassadors for the brand. By doing something good for them, we see over and over again that they speak on our behalf."

Converse has also been creating unforgettable moments for more-established talents. In 2008, along with its agencies Anomaly and Cornerstone, it launched "3 Artists, One Track," which brings together artists both well-known and up-and-coming from different genres to create a new song. It kicked off with a track from Pharrell, Julian Casablancas and Santigold, followed by three more songs by combos Matt & Kim, Soulja Boy and Andrew W.K.; Gorillaz, Andre 3000 and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy; and Kimbra, Foster and A-Trak.

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Just last week, after a two-year hiatus, the brand announced its ninth collaboration, an unexpected mashup of Frank Ocean, Diplo and Clash guitarist Mick Jones. For the artists and fans, it's a win-win. "It's really about providing artists the opportunity to work with people they've never worked with," said Mr. Cottrill. "Everybody gets paid, we give the song away and we don't make any revenue off the creation of the content."

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Mr. Cottrill cut his marketing teeth in the experiential world, which might help explain why Converse prioritizes such efforts over above-the-line plays. Before Converse, he served in executive roles at Starbucks and Coca-Cola. At the latter, he worked in the presence marketing group under Steve Koonin, now known for defying convention in the broadcast world as president of Turner Entertainment Networks. At Coke, the mission "went from ubiquity to driving relevance, and I've taken that idea with me everywhere I've gone since," said Mr. Cottrill. "At Converse, we've never once asked people to like us, we never put a Facebook URL in an ad.

We've gone from 6 million fans to nearly 40 million because we let go. From our standpoint, if you do something authentic for consumers, they will repay you. No advertising campaign will get you the kind of credibility that a meaningful experience will."

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that "Hero" was the fifth in the "3 Artists, One Track" lineup, but it is the ninth.

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