The Interview: Adam Blake, Global Head of Brand, Design and Consumer Engagement, Blundstone
In London recently on a whistle stop tour of key markets in the brand’s 150th anniversary year, Blundstone Global Head of Brand, Design and Consumer Engagement, Adam Blake, revealed what we can expect from the Australian boot company this year.
What’s the background of the Blundstone brand?
It dates back to 1870 in Hobart, Tasmania, when Hobart was just coming out of being a penal colony. We are still based there and have one of our factories there. Blundstone originally made lace up work boots for men, women and children. Tasmania is a beautiful place, but around 70% of it is wilderness. It’s very rugged and the weather can be pretty wild, so it’s a very hard place too, and it would have been even harder in 1870! It still influences the way we design. We therefore pride ourselves on always making boots that can stand up to tough conditions. We still make a lot of heavy industrial boots as well.
What brings you to London?
I actually left home some time ago to come over to, firstly, Israel and then Italy, for large PR celebration events for the 150th anniversary. Israel is a very big market for us and has been for some time. Italy has been with us for about 25 years too, and we show at Pitti through our distributor where we had an event. If I’m travelling around, I always try to come here, as the UK is another important market for us, as we’ve had presence here on and off for the past 25 years as well. Central Trade is our distributor for the UK, as well as our distributor for Germany – another important market for us. Given that we’re so far away in Tasmania, whenever we get over this way it’s really important that we get to the important anchor markets.
What else are you doing for the 150th anniversary?
We’re doing a range of things globally and running a campaign around the 150th all this year, with archive footage and historical assets and imagery. Because of our business model, we manage the brand globally, but we have partners in about 70 markets around the world now. We have distributors everywhere outside of Australia, New Zealand and the US – which we run ourselves. So, what we’ve been trying to do is look at some global PR that focuses on the history of the business and also around key product. We’re also going to be running a really big consumer user generated content (UGC) competition later this year in multiple markets. We’re lucky in that we get a lot of people sending up photographs of them wearing their Blundstone boots, so we also want to celebrate the people who wear our boots and what they do in our boots. There’s some pretty epic stories. So, we’re going to have some seriously big and amazing prizes for people to win. It’s a way of engaging consumers and a way of using social media such as Instagram and Facebook to spread the message about the brand and the history of the brand.
What specific product will there be this year?
Our iconic 500 Chelsea boot was originally produced 50 years ago, and it’s one of our best sellers in the world. For the anniversary we’ve brought out a special limited-edition anniversary version of the boot in a premium leather. It’s got 150 embossed on the heel and special leather lining with 150 running through it. We’re also making some boots with Goodyear welted soles this year, which we haven’t done for many years. We call it the ‘Heritage Series,’ and we’ve actually gone back to some of the patterns of some of our earlier boots, such as the men’s lace up boot – based on the boot we made for the army during WWII. It comes in premium black leather and it will be our top price point. The important thing for us is, it’s not just stretching in to the premium end for the sake of it, as this year has given us this whole impetus to go back in to our archive. The military-influenced boot with be coming out for AW20.
How is your business split these days between men’s and women’s?
That’s actually really interesting. It would be fair to say that traditionally we probably designed our product thinking about it as a men’s boot. However, we always knew that there was a percentage of women who chose to wear the Chelsea boot too. Through close interaction with our distributors, many of which operate their own retail, and see who’s coming through the door buying our boots, we’ve got a clearer picture of who our customers are. Also, with online selling as well, it’s given us a real window in to our customer base, and at least 50% of people buying our boots now globally are women, while in the US it’s an even higher percentage. Girls in Australia wear Blundstone boots like girls where Dr Martens here, and my kids have both. They go with a skirt as much as jeans, though Australians are famous for wearing Blundstone boots with shorts – we think it’s fashionable but the rest of the world might not quite agree! But, it’s the boot you can put with anything and, design-wise, we like the fact that our product doesn’t shout. It’s been used for many catwalk shows, because it’s a very simple design and it’s not fighting for attention. That whole utilitarian durability is quite in now – it’s seen as desirable. More shoppers are looking at that now, not just whether they are going to last 10 years versus one season, but that look is in more too.
Are you now doing more to appeal to women specifically?
Yes, we have now brought out some women-only styles and we aim to build on that. They have a little bit of heel, but are still based on typical Blundstone boot styling. We’re bringing out a slightly lower cut ankle boot for women too. Now we know it’s irrefutable that 50% or more of our consumers are women, we understand that we need to design for that as well. But, we are very careful as to how we expand our range, as we don’t want to just suddenly throw ourselves into an area we don’t belong. We won’t to keep the Blundstone DNA running through all that we do.
What’s happening with the pop-up retail strategy you’ve implemented in the UK?
We previously had a pop-up shop on Neal Street in Covent Garden at the end of 2018, and we are now currently operating one on Great Windmill Street in Soho until the end of February, 2020. That’s been running since last October 2019. It’s been conceived and managed by Central Trade, our distributors for the UK. It has performed really well – better than they originally expected. It’s also worked well as a marketing exercise for brand exposure and to show people a bigger range selection than other UK retailers would carry. We’re looking at maybe doing another pop-up shop in London around September time. In terms of a permanent store, it’s all about the brand being at a strong enough point to warrant that in each given market. In the US, we now have a pop-up in Brooklyn, and that could potentially become a permanent store. We could potentially have a series of permanent stores around the US, but we will have to see. The brand is getting to that point. Italy has potential for that too, where WP Lavori is our distributor which also sells our brand through their own retail stores. That’s been fantastic as they have positioned us alongside other great brands from around the world that they distribute, such as Barbour, Woolrich and Palladium. We still well with that classic heritage product.
How many Blundstone stores do you have in Australia?
We don’t have any. Back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s we did have stores in Tasmania, but really since then it’s been about wholesale. WWII was a big turning point for the brand because before that we just made what people needed, including football boots, kids school shoes and dancing shoes, dress-up boots and work boots. Once we got in to the war we, like all the other footwear manufacturers, focused pretty heavily on supplying our soldiers. What we made for the war, almost became the blueprint for us becoming a work boot driven brand, because we’d let go of the capacity to make some of those other products. We moved really heavily into making work boots after the war and, as we did that, we really became a wholesale company. We were a manufacturer first, and wholesaler second. Now I think online has dragged us from being a manufacturer and wholesaler into direct engagement with consumers, and that’s really why I joined the business five years ago – with a mission to become a global brand, which we now very much are.