Ohio boot-maker gets foot in the door of diverse markets

Ohio boot-maker gets foot in the door of diverse markets

Jan. 18–Urban cowboys and cowgirls. Survivalists. Health-care workers.

If these groups have one thing in common, it’s that they have specific footwear needs. And Rocky Brands, best known for long-wearing boots, now is tapping its expertise to serve these markets.

The key to making the strategy work, said David Sharp, CEO of the Nelsonville, Ohio, company, has been to carefully listen to “the voice of the consumer. ”

“We’re getting that voice a lot better than we did even three or four years ago,” Sharp said. T he story began after Rocky Brands’ acquisition of EJ Footwear Group in 2005. “We engaged with several marketing consultants and asked them to help us figure out how we could grow the business,” Sharp said.

One of the marketing companies, Columbus-based Cult Marketing, took a close look at one of the brands that came into the fold with the EJ Footwear purchase — Durango.

“It was a heritage brand, 50 or 60 years old, but kind of languishing,” said Cult Marketing CEO Doug McIntyre. “They’d been selling tons of Durango stuff to real cowboys and ranchers. ” But that was all.

Expanding the line to appeal to women — particularly women in cities looking to add a little country chic to their wardrobe — seemed an obvious move. The average woman buys about eight pairs of shoes a year, while men buy 2. 4 pairs, Sharp said, “so we would like to sell women more shoes. ”

Based on research that showed Durango was still a known and appreciated brand, Cult Marketing revved up a new look.

“The brand essence was ‘outlaw fun,”” McIntyre said. “It became very young, edgy, people cutting loose. ”

Soon, Rocky Brands sales representatives were fanning out from their usual destinations of Western-wear stores and going into New York fashion boutiques to sell Durango’s newly hip footwear. Prices for most of the Durango City offerings for women are $100 and up.

The boost from the revived Durango brand helped Rocky Brands generate a 42 percent increase in sales through the third quarter of 2012.

As it became clear that the Durango move was going to succeed, Rocky Brands began looking for other areas in which to expand, categories that were new but would be natural extensions of existing products.

“One of the things that we bandied about was medical,” McIntyre said. “It was most interesting for its market size and the fact that there was not a lot of innovation going on. ”

Cult Marketing’s research on this niche took it to a host of medical venues.

“We sat in the emergency room at Riverside (Methodist Hospital),” McIntrye said. “We went to various clinic areas and found that nurses, doctors, veterinarians had a lot of issues around footwear. ”

The footwear had to shield them from “a lot of nasty stuff” and not simply absorb it; it had to offer good traction in slippery areas; it had to be durable enough to be useful “as a tool for kicking doors, pushing gurneys” without quickly wearing out; and it had to be comfortable enough for 12-hour shifts.

The product that emerged, called the Rocky 4EurSole, is a convertible shoe that can be worn as a clog, as a slingback or a full shoe, Sharp said. “We do that with an insert. That’s really resonated very well. ”

The new shoe is expected to arrive in stores in the first quarter of this year. And when it does, Rocky Brands anticipates big things, based on acclaim it received after presenting it in late August at a footwear trade show.

“We’re approaching this market just as it really explodes,” Sharp said. “There are going to be another 3. 2 million jobs added in nursing before 2015. We’re very encouraged with the reception in tests. “Pricing information was not available.

The final new line, launched only a few months ago, was a natural outgrowth of existing Rocky products, essentially combining traditional outdoor gear with military footwear that had been designed for Navy SEALs.

The Rocky S2V line — the initials stand for “stealth to victory” — was created for “these guys who don’t hunt but love the outdoors and put their body to the test every week by climbing, hiking and all these extreme sports,” Sharp said.

The target audience for these products has specific needs, so, for example, some boots in the S2V line have a cavity in the heel that contains a fire-starting kit. That’s part of the outdoor survival focus of the line, which has already been launched and includes apparel as well as footwear.

“The premiere piece is the Provision Jacket,” said Liz Horn, Rocky Brands’ vice president of marketing. “You can basically survive up to 72 hours if you use it. It has multiple pockets that have a survival kit. ”

Each piece in the S2V line comes with a Survival Grenade, a compact emergency survival kit bound up in 10 feet of military-grade nylon parachute cord.

“We received the Survival Grenade in our warehouse just before Christmas, put them online, and in a very short time sold about 1,000 pieces,” Sharp said. The boots are priced in the $200 range.

“We’re proud of our heritage with hunting and U. S. military and work and Western,” Sharp said. ” We understand those markets exceptionally well, and we’re committed to those markets. These organic growth vehicles are great, and we think we can deliver there. ”

After the EJ Footwear purchase, Rocky Brands found itself $110 million in debt, but by the end of this year, “we’ll be out of debt altogether,” he said. And ready to do some more buying. “Over the next 12 to 18 months, we’re looking very seriously for something that will complement the brands we have here today, maybe something that will further our capabilities around the female customer also,” Sharp said.

“Ideally a women’s casual line would be something we’d be very interested in. “