Why Crocs is obsessed with collabs

Crocs’ rubber slip-ons used to be one of the most hated items of footwear out there. Then the company started harnessing unlikely brand collaborations to turn its reputation – and the business – around.
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Brand history

The original idea for Crocs came about simply enough when co-founders Scott Seamans, Lyndon Hanson and George Boedecker Jr discovered a new boating clog during a sailing trip in the Caribbean. This was back in 2002, and the boating clog was produced by Canadian company Foam Creations, using a new material called Croslite. The friends had the insight to add a strap to the back of the clogs and, when they returned home, acquired the rights to Foam Creations’ manufacturing process. 

Crocs launched later that same year with just one style, called Beach, but things picked up fast from there. Global sales increased from $1.2 million in 2003 to $850 million in 2007. It continued to add styles and acquired Jibbitz – a company that had started creating accessories and charms that fitted into the holes of Crocs shoes (and has since achieved huge growth as a result). 

But Crocs’ leadership team didn’t have enough fashion expertise to navigate its initial high-speed growth, or to make sure the products remained relevant. The foam clog was already gaining a reputation for being uncool and generally undesirable. (A typical headline about the brand, this one coming from BuzzFeed: ‘Crocs are ugly!!!’) 

Inventory and production issues also plagued Crocs’ financial wellbeing in the early days. The company manufactured so much product that it regularly found itself with excess stock (yet still failed to fulfil many of its orders on time). The product assortment had also become unwieldy, growing from 25 shoe styles in 2006 to more than 250 the following year. 

In 2008, the brand’s global sales dropped 15% to $722 million and the company posted a $185 million loss. In 2014, private equity firm Blackstone stepped in with a $200 million investment and brought in a team of experienced footwear executives. In addition to solving the logistical issues, the new team was tasked with making the brand not only relevant, but cool. 

The road to relevance

What made Crocs different from its competitors was its open approach to collaborations. Yet while collaborations were a linchpin in the search for relevance, it remained elusive at the start. 

Two early collaborations marked a turning point for the brand, according to Molly Wilhelm, director of product line management at Crocs. In 2016, Scottish designer Christopher Kane came up with a marble-printed line of Crocs with mineral stone Jibbitz charms. The next year, Balenciaga’s creative director and the co-founder of Vetements, Demna Gvasalia, designed bubble-gum-pink Crocs with four-inch platforms and custom Jibbitz.

Then, in 2018, Crocs entered the world of streetwear through its collaborations with skatewear brand Alife. During Alife’s relaunch, one of its founders, Rob Cristofaro, recognized the collaboration would be a good opportunity to show how his NYC-based lifestyle brand wasn’t afraid to associate itself with products that other big streetwear players wouldn’t touch. Limited to a run of just 100 pairs, the grey Crocs, with 3D-printed Jibbitz of NYC landmarks, retailed for $600 a pair. 

‘These early collaborations gave us the opportunity to create a new dialog around Crocs, allowing consumers to view our brand in a new light,’ says Molly. ‘Collaborations are important to us because they allow Crocs to connect with consumers who may have not previously thought of Crocs, let alone [worn] them. Sales, yes, are important too, but at the end of the day, collaborations are all about driving awareness.’ 

Other big-hitting collaborations started coming thick and fast – with LA streetwear labels Pleasures and Chinatown Market – all of which helped Crocs move from irrelevance to the newest popular streetwear item. Before long, the collaborations became even wilder. While the jump into streetwear – and from utility to novelty – was impressive, Crocs started giving its collaborators a free pass to do almost whatever they wanted. 

The brand worked with Japanese retailer Beams to add functional design elements like zipper pouches and durable nylon uppers. Then there was the collaboration with KFC, which had images of the famous chicken printed all over the outside of the shoe – and some pretty sizeable drumstick Jibbitz charms (‘made to resemble and smell like fried chicken’) attached to the top. Later, candy brand Peeps came up with pastel-colored clogs and marshmallow-shaped Jibbitz.

And then, critically, came the many collaborations with celebrities. By now, Crocs had already started seeing a sharp rise in sales on online resale platforms where the clogs often went for double or triple the original retail price. Crocs also started to compete with a wide range of copycats from Walmart to Kanye West; the YEEZY Foam RNNR (which was quickly nicknamed the ‘YEEZY Croc’ online) instantly sold out when it was released in June. Thanks to Crocs, the clog became a known commodity in the luxury fashion world. 

Behind the success  

Like Marmite (the infamous British yeast-extract spread), Crocs is a brand that people seem to either love or hate. According to the brand’s CEO, Andrew Rees, this works in its favor. ‘It’s a very polarizing brand and that’s one of the core strengths,’ he told CNN earlier this year. On the brands that Crocs likes to work with, product line director Molly specifies ones ‘that are not afraid to take chances’. 

This openness to collaboration has only accelerated in the past year. In 2021, collaborations included Balenciaga (for the second time), Russian rave band Little Big, South Korean snack brand Nongshim and London skate brand Palace Skateboards

The pandemic and stay-at-home orders also worked in Crocs’ favor, with people snatching up new pairs of the comfy clogs quicker than ever before. Crocs was the only top footwear company to see a rise in sales during March 2020 and April 2020 when lockdown measures started coming into play; sales increased by 14% between March 2019 and March 2020, according to market research company NPD Group, which tracks 30 major footwear brands. In the second quarter of 2021, Crocs saw a 93% increase in revenue, helped by a smart direct-to-consumer play – by slimming down the number of wholesale partnerships and becoming more selective about how much and what type of inventory it allows to enter the marketplace at any one time.

For Elizabeth Stiles, a fashion brand consultant who traded in her high-street corporate fashion job to help small, independent businesses looking to grow, ‘Crocs is the antidote to fashion. They are the ugliest shoe that you could wear.’ What makes Crocs stand out, Elizabeth continues, is how the brand is able to enter into collabs with a completely different brand ethos on the face of it, but manages to end up with a collaboration that all parties – including buyers – are happy with. 

Crocs nails the spirit of collaborations as well as any other brand, she says, and she encourages other fashion business owners to explore collabs early on as a way to build community and cross-pollinate audiences. Her smaller clients are sometimes presented with opportunities that don’t seem obvious, but that end up introducing the brands to a much larger customer base. 

Elizabeth points to Gap’s multimillion-dollar, 10-year deal with YEEZY; the announcement alone caused Gap’s stock price to soar by 42%. Other recent unexpected yet successful collaborations include North Face and Gucci, streetwear brand Supreme’s first beauty collaboration with makeup artist Pat McGrath, and a collaboration between Dior and Nike Air Jordan that resulted in trainers priced over $2,300 (which obviously sent consumers into a frenzy).

From the classic clog to utilitarian designs, Justin Bieber is among the brand's many fans.
From the classic clog to utilitarian designs, Justin Bieber is among the brand's many fans.
Marketing is key

Successful brand collaborations are hard to get right. ‘It takes a village,’ says Crocs’ Molly of the sheer number of people it takes to really nail them. ‘At the outset, our product and design teams play an important role by working in lockstep with our collaboration partners.’ 

When asked how long it takes to set up and deliver a Crocs collaboration, Molly says, ‘Because each project comes to life in its own, authentic way, it’s impossible to put a timeline on it.’ 

But, she continues, ‘There are dozens of team members across various channels and regions within the organization that bring our collaborations to life, including marketing and merchandising... We do not disclose the spend associated with each collaboration, but marketing is one of the most important elements of our collaboration process.’

Five key learnings: how Crocs mastered brand collaborations 

1. Complete creative freedom is essential.  

Crocs’ mantra is ‘Come as you are’. While it’s a global corporation, it freely gives collaborators creative license to completely reimagine the brand. Without the limitations of brand rules and regulations, you get some wild results – those clogs that smelled of fried chicken (pictured left), or Justin Bieber working alongside your design team. 

2. Don’t be bound by sector or market. 

Rather than sticking to a single category, Crocs partners with brands from all sectors. This openness ensures that the collaborations will not only be diverse in execution, but that Crocs’ audience continues to grow where few fashion brands have gone before. 

3. Let your consumers customize. 

Crocs doesn’t only empower its collaborators with creative freedom; through the Jibbitz charms, people are able to customize and continually change their Crocs. This provides a level of participation that builds brand loyalty. ‘With the Disney collaboration, for example, customers could personalize their shoes, which is something that’s really important to Gen Z,’ says Elizabeth. 

4. Use social media to surprise consumers. 

‘I don’t think Crocs would be where it is today without social media,’ says Elizabeth. Crocs really leans into social media – it announced its limited-edition Space Jam: A New Legacy all-terrain clog on Instagram with details on how to buy online. It also used social media to give away 5,000 pairs of its fifth collaboration with rapper Post Malone in partnership with a major delivery service, and more recently, in China, sent fans on a mission to find one of 13 claw machines, giving them a chance to win a free pair of Crocs x Justin Bieber shoes. ‘We don’t just want to give fans what they want, but we want to do so in engaging, innovative and often unexpected ways,’ says Molly. 

5. Be inclusive.

Nothing is too high- or low-brow for Crocs, which allows the brand to communicate its ethos to a huge range of consumers across income brackets and backgrounds. Whether people are wearing a plain pair of Crocs in a hospital or a restaurant kitchen (where they happen to be extremely popular), or purchasing a set of limited-edition streetwear clogs as a collector’s item, they are made to feel welcome and appreciated as ambassadors of the brand.

This article was first published in Courier issue 43, October/November 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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