Brazilian Brand Sells Soles to Masses

Fashionistas Flip for Havaianas, but Plan Is to Broaden U.S. Market

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NEW YORK ( -- Havaianas, the colorful rubber sandals known in the U.S. as high-end goodies -- the sort of treats placed in Oscar swag bags and sold in bejeweled versions in upscale boutiques -- are returning to their humbler beginnings.
The flip-flops have become a fashion staple among a certain well-heeled cognoscenti since their introduction in the States nearly five years ago. But Sao Paulo-based Alpargatas, which introduced Havaianas to Brazil's masses more than four decades ago, is looking to increase its U.S. sales and market share by devoting more executive talent and financial resources to the market. The plan includes broadening availability here and promoting Havaianas on a mass-market level.

Accessory vets
The company has hired accessories veteran Elaine Sugimura, whose resume includes stints at Esprit and Tommy Hilfiger, and longtime accessories executive Glen Lagerstrom, who has worked with Ms. Sugimura several times. Toiling out of new offices in New York's SoHo, the pair is overseeing the launch of Havaianas' first U.S. ad campaign, by BBDO New York.

Introduced in Brazil more than 40 years ago, Havaianas sell for less than $5 a pair in that country. Embraced by working Brazilians, Havaianas initially were known as the shoes of the poor. About a decade ago, wanting to appeal to middle- and upper-income Brazilians as well, Alpargatas hired Almap BBDO. "The goal was to make it a cool brand, one that would be desired at all social levels," Ms. Sugimura said.

Only 10% of Havaianas are sold outside Brazil -- 3.5% in the U.S. Ms. Sugimura wants to bump that up to 10% in three to five years.

BBDO brought copywriter Dulcido Caldeira and art director Cesar Finamori from Almap to New York this year. Their team has developed a colorful, whimsical and sensory-focused print, out-of-home and viral campaign launching in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

"Havaianas feel different -- from a material point of view, the rubber is tougher -- from the competition," said Bill Bruce, chairman-chief creative officer, BBDO, New York. The agency also had to adapt a Brazilian sensibility to the U.S. market. "In Brazil, the Havaianas advertising tends to feature iconic symbols of Brazilian culture and celebrity, whereas our approach to the U.S. market is much more about conveying the joy, happiness and color of the brand," Mr. Bruce said.

Half of operating budget
Havaianas' marketing budget, though small by U.S. fashion-brand standards, is more than 50% of Alpargatas' U.S. operating budget for this year. The company did not specify a figure, however.

A small marketing budget isn't the only challenge Alpargatas faces as it tries to move into the U.S. mainstream, where it competes with cheaper shoes from trendy mass-market retailers such as Old Navy, Target and J. Crew. First, it needs to build distribution.

While Alpargatas' U.S. distributor, StyleWest, will continue to sell the sandals to specialty stores, Ms. Sugimura is building relationships with key accounts such as Federated Stores, Foot Locker and other chains. "Our goal," Ms. Sugimura said, "is to have people associate sandals to Havaianas as they do tissues to Kleenex or carbonated, caffeinated beverages to Coke."
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