FORM TO FUNCTION How Sorel successfully diversified its product line and target audience

By Brook Sutton September 15, 2015

The road from functional Arctic footwear to the pages of Vogue magazine is one few brands have traveled. For many outdoor companies steeped in performance, expanding from a core, function-focused audience to one influenced heavily by the whims of fashion is a risky move.

In 2009, Sorel accepted that risk and began a journey to diversify its product line and its target audience. The goal was to increase the brand’s appeal to the fashion-focused market, without losing its solid foothold in outdoors. Judging by the sales figures, they’ve nailed it.

Why Now? 

The notion of traditional outdoor brands seeking a broader distribution certainly isn’t new. For those going after a stake in the fashion and urban sectors, however, few have managed to do so successfully, with longevity and without alienating their core audience.

Sorel’s success in diversification is attributable to a strong team with a clear vision and a willingness to listen. And, it should be noted, part of the brand’s explosive growth over the past six years rests not only in identifying a trend, but also in leading it.

Sorel’s success in diversification is attributable to a strong team with a clear vision and a willingness to listen. And, it should be noted, part of the brand’s explosive growth over the past six years rests not only in identifying a trend, but also in leading it. 

Case in point: Effusively bullish assessments of the opportunities in the athleisure trend make it seem as though every outdoor brand is primed to demand space on the catwalk. Though potential to capitalize on the trend is undeniable, Sorel identified the footwear corollary to athleisure early on. Fashion-forward women were lacking options when it came to stylish, functional winter footwear. That was Sorel’s opportunity.

The Sorel Experience

Sorel’s successful move into fashion was deliberate and strategic. By staying true to its premium quality and functional heritage, and by capitalizing on a distinctive design aesthetic, the brand earned its place in its new market.

“We used our past to push us forward,” explains Kimberly Barta, senior global brand director for Sorel. “Success [would be] defined by creating relevant yet unexpected product that lived very comfortably in both fashion and outdoor channels.”

Sorel began its diversification strategy with traditional brand awareness tactics, by advertising its existing winter boot line in fashion magazines in 2009. Boots were becoming a staple in women’s wardrobes and the strategic alignment with Vogue, among other high fashion magazines, earned Sorel brand recognition in the new market.

Sorel began its diversification strategy with traditional brand awareness tactics, by advertising its existing winter boot line in fashion magazines in 2009. Boots were becoming a staple in women’s wardrobes and the strategic alignment with Vogue, among other high fashion magazines, earned Sorel brand recognition in the new market. 

Momentum didn’t accelerate appreciably until 2011 when the Sorel design and production team expanded its collection to offer more fall and year-round styles for both men and women (introduced in 2012).

Early market research in New York City and Chicago proved immediately telling. Women were wearing boots for fashion in three seasons. Yet they were still wearing their functional footwear to commute, and carrying their “beautiful” footwear to change into once they arrived at their destination.

This knowledge provided an opportunity for Sorel to enter the sector as a trendsetter. According to Barta, “Our main question was and continues to be: How does Sorel deliver on the unique intersection of style and protection?”

With 50 years of building premium winter boots under its belt, Sorel offered a value proposition not frequently found in fashion footwear: function and style. The design team created a distinctive aesthetic that blended urban sophistication with a wearable, outdoor style. And critically, Sorel incorporated its long-held, key functional elements, like good traction and waterproof leather, into even the most fashion-forward products in the line.

With 50 years of building premium winter boots under its belt, Sorel offered a value proposition not frequently found in fashion footwear: function and style. The design team created a distinctive aesthetic that blended urban sophistication with a wearable, outdoor style.

The Community Grows

The fall and winter collections of 2012 and 2013 connected with consumers. Sorel was accomplishing one of the goals it established at the outset of the product and demographic diversification: The brand was commanding prominent display space in a distribution network that included such diverse channels as REI and Nordstrom. Outdoor retailers were receptive to the greater range of styles, and fashion retailers were thrilled to fill a need for premium, good-looking, functional footwear.

Sorel was accomplishing one of the goals it established at the outset of the product and demographic diversification: The brand was commanding prominent display space in a distribution network that included such diverse channels as REI and Nordstrom.

The product line was becoming an organic and thrilling discovery for new and old customers alike. With the influx of energy from its reinvigorated outdoor base and a whole new demographic of fashion-forward urbanites, Sorel implemented a comprehensive online and social media rollout to communicate directly with its consumers.

“We are continually inspired by our consumers and seek to create product that meets the rigors of her fast paced and interesting life,” said Barta. “Our consumer is at the heart of everything we do, from product creation to communications.”

The first major initiative aimed at the expanded consumer base was the “Get Your Boots Dirty” campaign in 2012. It featured everyday women of style and substance whose lives demanded a seamless transition between their professional realities and other obligations. It was an inspiring and beautifully shot campaign. Concurrently, the brand launched SORELstyle—a video and photo storytelling content hub on its website—with more direct appeal to the young and fashion conscious.

SORELstyle remains a vibrant community. Through it, Sorel has partnered with influential fans of the brand, including Jenn Rogien, the Brooklyn-based costume designer for Girls and Orange is the New Black. Many of Rogien’s SORELstyle YouTube videos have received over 350,000 views. With active accounts on Facebook and YouTube, plus hashtags for Instagram and Twitter, SORELstyle shares new and varied ways to wear Sorels. Importantly, across all of Sorel’s owned platforms, the messages of individuality and unique style are clear.

Results

Sorel’s strategy to diversify its appeal and its consumer base has worked. Both 2013 and 2014 were breakout years, with the brand reporting heavy buy-in from all channels to the expanded fall and winter collections.

In 2014, Sorel’s revenue grew 29 percent. As of the second quarter 2015, Sorel is on track to surpass $200 million in sales for the year. For perspective, Sorel earned approximately $60 million in 2009.

In 2014, Sorel’s revenue grew 29 percent. As of the second quarter 2015, Sorel is on track to surpass $200 million in sales for the year. For perspective, Sorel earned approximately $60 million in 2009.  

When asked when she knew the plan was working, Barta referenced the Vogue September 2015 issue. In it, the Sorel Major Carly boots are featured in an editorial layout with clothing from Alexander McQueen and Valentino. “We were both humbled and proud to see that one of the most influential voices in fashion chose to feature Sorel…and bring to life the protection and style story we’ve been working toward.”

It was only six years ago that the brand purchased ad space in Vogue to introduce itself to a new audience. Today, that same magazine is recognizing Sorel as a premier fashion and function powerhouse worthy of wearing with haute couture. The fact that this fashion coup was achieved, while sales in its revered outdoor channels are equally strong, is a testament to Sorel’s commitment to allowing its past to influence, but not limit, its future.


Sorel is owned by Columbia Sportswear Co. Look for the brand’s continuing evolution in its Spring 2016 collection. 

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