It used to be considered a rite of passage for a newly graduated male to purchase his first pair of formal dress shoes in which to properly enter the business world. The loafers, khaki pants and blue blazer which used to stand in as your dress-up outfit were put aside and, usually with your father’s assistance, you acquired some nice cap-toe brogues or wingtip oxfords, and almost always in black. My father strongly recommended his own brand of dress shoe, Allen Edmonds. His experience with Allen Edmonds began in the War, when Allen Edmonds was traditional issue for dress uniform in the Armed Forces.
Allen Edmonds is a premium brand and cost more than $100 over other shoe brands I was considering and I told my Father that I simply “could not afford” a pair of Allen Edmonds shoes right now. In what was to be my first and lifelong lesson on value versus price, my Father responded, “you need a quality shoe and can’t afford to buy anything less than Allen Edmonds.”
Let me add a caveat here: Allen Edmonds is not an HY Connect client (although we would be proud to be their agency). They are located about 50 miles north of our Milwaukee offices in Belgium, Wisconsin. As I’ve already made apparent, I do have an incredible loyalty to Allen Edmonds that began with that first purchase almost 30 years ago. I hold up Allen Edmonds as an example, albeit a personal one, of a brand that was built the old-fashioned way—through selling a great, high-quality product that consistently over-delivers on customer’s expectations.
Defining a brand through the actual product is not a new idea, but not one in today’s throw-away world of über consumerism that most are proud to focus on anymore. We talk about “brand essence” and “brand ethos” and “brand architecture” while often failing to mention that the foundation of any brand is the product itself—if the product can’t live up to all of our bold brand statements, then we and not the consumer will be the only ones who believe in our branding process.
A funny thing happened to Allen Edmonds and a number of other brands established around the turn of the last century, they have not only endured but they have thrived. In fact, these “heritage” brands have recently been embraced by hipster designers looking for “runway” inspiration as reported in the Wall Street Journal. Brands that are 100 years-old like Allen Edmonds, L.L. Bean, Alden, Red Wing and Pendleton have become hot—once again.
Typically, when we think of good examples of branding, we think of companies like Apple, with never-ending new and improved products, exciting “retail experience” concepts, and relentlessly inventive marketing campaigns. But at its core, good branding can also be much simpler, boiling down to consistency of quality and the usual by-product of consistency which is authenticity. Authenticity, a rare commodity in many brands today that seem to change packaging, advertising and product formulation every time a new “brand manager” takes over, creates a connection of trust and credibility with consumers.
Before ever even considering advertising their shoes, Allen Edmonds went through the really tough branding work to establish themselves as an enduring, premium brand and they reinforce this branding process with every new pair of shoes they make—it’s a 212 step manufacturing process to be exact and it takes a pair of shoes from leather to lace.
Over the years Allen Edmonds has introduced new styles that bow to the more casual work environment of the day, yet the backbone of their line continues to be the classic wingtips and cap-toe oxfords that defined their brand more than 90 years ago. Their brand is still about consistent quality, authenticity and the timeless style that continues to define men’s fashion, as reported in the New York Times.
My original Allen Edmonds wingtips still draw compliments. Although they have been “recrafted” three times, and are close to 30 years old, they are every bit as enduring as the Allen Edmonds brand itself.
Allen Edmonds should remind us all, especially the marketers and branders, that brands are about more than image and essence—they are about the physical products that deliver actual benefits to consumers. As Bill Bernbach pointed out so many years ago, in the Madison Avenue Journal, “Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage. It can only convey it.”