Q&A   //   May 10, 2024

Merrell’s CMO wants to build the brand’s reputation beyond hiking & into lifestyle

Outdoors brand Merrell is focusing its marketing on three core footwear categories — hiking, trail running and lifestyle — to bring in customers and boost sales.

Merrell, a decades-old brand known for its hiking boots, saw demand skyrocket at the beginning of the pandemic as people spent more time outdoors. To try and maintain this momentum, over the last few years, Merrell expanded its colorways, introduced more women’s styles and launched a web-based game. However, while Merrell managed to build revenue for multiple quarters, sales at the brand and its parent company have come down as customers cut back on discretionary purchases.

On Wednesday, Merrell’s parent company Wolverine Worldwide reported a 34.1% drop in year-over-year revenue for the quarter ending March 30. Merrell’s revenue, meanwhile, was down 26.2% year over year. While announcing earnings, Wolverine also named a new chief financial officer, Taryn Miller. She replaces Michael Stornant, who is retiring after 30 years with the company.

There have been other executive shuffles at Wolverine, which announced a restructuring plan to generate $215 million in annual savings last fall and entered into two global licensing agreements earlier this month. In November, Merrell brought on a new CMO, Pallav Tamaskar, to oversee Merrell’s global advertising and brand-building strategy.

Tamaskar, who was previously an executive at Myprotein and ESPN and worked in marketing for Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, told Modern Retail he wants to reposition the brand as outdoors-first, not necessarily hiking-first, in a way that reflects how people are actually using Merrell products. To that end, Merrell’s marketing campaigns this year showcase not just hikers, but also trail runners, joggers and city walkers.

“We want to share the simple power of being outside with everyone,” he said.

Tamaskar spoke with Modern Retail about his plans for establishing Merrell as a go-to brand for different activities and environments amid Wolverine’s turnaround efforts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has Merrell’s approach to marketing changed from the beginning of the pandemic?
The new consumer that we’re trying to go after… we call them the experience seeker. Very simply put, this consumer values both form and function.

Traditionally, when you thought of hiking, hiking was all about utility. And it was this cumbersome sort of task of, “I’m going on a five-day hike that I haven’t planned for and [need to] look for tactical elements in a footwear brand that will enable me to go accomplish that mission.” That definition has really evolved, where consumers think of modern hiking as equal parts going on a traditional hike or going for a long walk in Central Park. And what the consumers are yearning for is a product that really serves their needs on more than one specific occasion.

What we learned from our consumer was 60% were wearing athletic sneakers to go hiking versus traditional hiking boots. And they were doing that because they liked the fact that they were lightweight but also looked good. So as a brand, we really wanted to embrace that through our product and marketing to talk about hiking in a way that is much more modern and culturally connected.

So, in newer campaigns, you try to stress that consumers can wear Merrell shoes in all types of environments?
Exactly. The campaign we launched in April was called “Good Things Await.” The insight there was: we are growing up with a generation of consumers that are highly stressed, anxious and very pressured from everything from a socio-economic standpoint to the world around them. And they look at nature as almost a reprieve… The campaign is predicated on the fact that Merrell excites and challenges consumers to come step outside… and experience joy through the lens of nature.

The hero product is our Moab Speed 2, which we launched earlier this year. And in the spirit of what I mentioned — of the athletic silhouette and the look, tone and feel — the product really fulfills that need. It’s lighter, it’s waterproof, but at the same time still has the DNA of Merrell, which is about comfort and security. So we used this as the hero product. But the benefit we were trying to communicate was about stepping outside and, as a result of that, experiencing joy in a very contemporary way, no matter what surroundings you’re in.

How have you judged the success of the “Good Things Await” campaign?
Our KPIs were three-fold. One was to bring new buyers into the franchise. The second was to drive brand awareness. And the third was to create brand love. Those three factors are super important for us.

It’s still very early days, but what we’re seeing globally is very positive. From a messaging standpoint on social media to what we’re seeing from our retailers and people who are going into stores, everyone is resonating really well with the contemporization of the brand. And the Moab 2 actually has become our third-biggest franchise within just a few months of launch. So, from a sell-through standpoint of how we measure success of the product, that is doing really well. Messaging is starting to resonate. And we are seeing a lot more new consumers coming in in terms of site traffic, as well as in stores.

What other campaigns can we expect to see this year?
“Good Things Await” is our biggest push for the year. Q2 and Q3 are very much focused through the lens of this campaign. It’s a multifaceted campaign, so we have the whole 360 approach around it, doing everything from awareness to driving purchase.

But the way we started off the year was through the lens of trail running. The campaign that we had there was the “Run Wild” campaign. We saw it as a big opportunity, knowing that trail running was one of the key activities that consumers do in the early months of the year. We not only showed up at the L.A. Marathon, but we also brought our influencers and community along with us… We did a full-city takeover and, within the campaign, emphasized why running is better than being stuck in L.A. traffic. And very quickly, we were able to move L.A. as a DMA [designated market area] from a top 10 to a top five as a result of this campaign.

Beyond the trail running and hike campaigns, we do want to lean into lifestyle as well, because we realize, come Q4, as the weather starts getting colder, people are looking for products and opportunities that still connect them to nature but are more versatile and sort of day-to-day versus going on a trail run or hiking activity. So we’re actually just about to shoot our campaign for Q4 that will be focused more on lifestyle elements.

We’re giving consumers an opportunity to actually see what styling these products can look like beyond the traditional scope of hiking. Internally, we talk a lot about a three-fit test, which is, “If you wear this product, can you wear it with three different outfits, and what does that look like in a fresh and contemporary way versus the crunchy granola way that people might have thought about back in the past?” That is the objective of the campaign for lifestyle, and we’re going to actually double down and show landscapes and messaging that’s more urban and cityscape versus the traditional sort of outdoors.

On that point, what are your biggest markets? You mentioned L.A. before. Do most of your customers live in cities versus more rural environments?
Over 60% of our consumers are actually urban dwellers. So what we are aiming to do is redefine what outdoors means. It’s connecting to nature, and nature can be anywhere. Knowing that our consumers are already in city settings, we want to make sure that we’re continuing to build that affinity and help them expand the horizon of what being outdoors in nature means.