Danner boots, more than 80 years old, embraces branding through retail expansion, product collaborations

Danner boots, more than 80 years old, embraces branding through retail expansion, product collaborations

Danner boots, founded in 1932 in Portland, is an old dog that has spent the past year learning more than a few new tricks.

The company has pushed into its own brick-and-mortar storefronts, rather than relying exclusively on other retailers. It has introduced several boots and other footwear targeted at — to the dismay of some utilitarian Danner purists — the “lifestyle” market. Its website and focus on social media reflect a new way of presenting a long-established brand.

Collaborating on footwear and other products with like-minded companies, opening three Danner stores this year and hinting at more retail outlets to come have been the most visible changes. Adding to the degree of difficulty: The changes have taken root at a time when the company’s ownership and leadership has been going through a particularly tumultuous period.

Marketing director Laurie Shaw said the urgency isn’t without reason.

“We have a desire to grow beyond a niche brand that is known just in Northwest,” Shaw said.

On Monday, the company announced the opening of its third Danner store, at Tanasbourne Town Center in Hillsboro adjacent to Nordstrom Rack. A fourth store is scheduled to open in December at The Landing at Renton, near the Boeing airfield south of Seattle. In September, Danner opened the boutique-style Union Way store in Portland, across from Powell’s Bookstore.

Its previous retail experience was limited to the factory-outlet store it opened in 2010 near Portland International Airport. That store features the company’s boot recrafting shop.

Until the past few years, Danner was known almost exclusively for footwear sold to people who worked in the woods, a construction site or on a factory floor. About a third of the footwear is built at its Portland factory — the rest is outsourced to multiple offshore production sites, primarily China, Vietnam and Italy.

“Quality, craftsmanship… utilitarian,” retail analyst Jennifer Black said, describing the company’s heritage.

But Danner decided it wanted to be more than work boots. So this year the company and its designers have leaped with both (booted) feet into the world of collaborative lifestyle projects, teaming with Woolrich Woolen Mills and Tanner Goods on separate projects. Each has been rolled out with nighttime product launches in Portland featuring hors d’ouevres and live music.

A collaboration with Beckel Canvas Products of Portland is planned for 2014.

In a way, Danner is just getting with the times, said Brad Walhood, director of retail development.

“The way in which brands communicate to customers in the last 10 years has changed,” Walhood said. Customers “really want to know the whole story. With our brand, with 80 years of heritage… we feel like we’ve got an amazing brand story to tell and amazing product.”

Company officials said the push into Danner lifestyle boots began in Japan in the late 1980s, where its line of utility boots were popular more as fashion statements than footwear for job sites.

Danner responded to Japanese distributors’ requests for variations on the traditional styles. American retail customers saw those products and requested similar innovation for the U.S., Shaw said, leading to Danner’s launch of the Stumptown Collection last year in 2011.

More retail openings can be expected next year, said Craig Cohen, vice president of sales and marketing.

“Danner plans to open stores as opportunities arise,” Cohen said. “It’s not an initiative to explode U.S. retail growth… if it makes sense to our business as a whole and is not cannibalizing our current distribution base.”

Cohen said more than one additional retail opening could be expected in 2014, declining to name potential locations.

The Burnside store offers a look at Danner’s interpretation of what a small retail shop in chic urban location would look like. The larger Tanasbourne site, as well as the factory store and the store planned in Renton, shows what a larger Danner store will look like. Danner’s design staff worked with architects on the stores’ designs.

Danner’s U.S. retailing partners include the outdoor giants REI and Cabela’s.

But the past year has also been one with plenty of backroom tumult.

LaCrosse Footwear Inc., Danner’s parent company, was sold last year to ABC-Mart, a huge Japanese footwear retailer. The company went from a publicly held to private. The LaCrosse chief executive, who stayed after the sale, left abruptly earlier this year. A Nike veteran was hired to take his place, but he left fairly quickly thereafter.

Front-line employees took these changes in stride, keeping their eyes on the opportunities in front of them, Walhood said.

“We have a brand that’s more than 80 years old,” Walhood said. “Changes in management have to happen. That’s part of life.”

— Allan Brettman