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The Interview: Amy Smith, Chief Brand Officer at TOMS

Chloe Burney
11 July 2023 catches up with Amy Smith, Chief Brand Officer at TOMS, a year after she was featured on the podcast, to discuss the evolution of the business since it implemented the new impact model.

Launched in 2006, B Corp-certified footwear brand TOMS was founded by Blake Mycoskie and pioneered the One for One business model. This saw the brand giving away one pair of shoes for every pair sold, supporting larger health, education, and community development programs through strategic partnerships. Since then, TOMS has updated its impact model to donate 1/3 of its profits to grassroots for good.

Smith serves as a member of TOMS' executive team, leading all aspects of the company’s corporate strategy, marketing, consumer insights, creative, impact, and the business.

After seven years at the company, Smith is well-versed in how it has evolved. She told about TOMS' transition from a one-to-one business to its new impact model, as well as its expanded offering from the heritage espadrille silhouette to a diverse product line. What's more, Smith drops hints at new and exciting upcoming launches that are in the works.

Can you tell us about the start of your career and how you became the Chief Brand Officer at TOMS?

I've been with TOMS for seven years, just a few weeks ago. It has been a minute. I joined the company as our Chief Giving Officer. That role was really about giving shoes and taking our employees on giving trips. Since then, we've really evolved.

Recently, I transitioned into the role of TOMS’ Chief Brand and Impact Officer. With this, I'm responsible for our marketing, our creativity, our business, and of course, our impact.

So, it's a really fun role. It's a really meaningful role because now I can really think about how we bring the impact closer to the product and the product closer to our consumers.

TOMS is a business that is driven by improving lives and ‘giving back’. How exactly do you do this?

About three or four years ago we really start to think about, how are we going to make a real impact. We are really known as the original one-for-one company and we're so proud of inspiring so many companies to also give back and have a purpose.

Now, everyone is doing that and I felt very obligated as the leader to say, 'Are we having the greatest impact we possibly can, with the unprecedented giving that we do?'

We had impacted over 100 million lives with our giving and then it was time to really think about what might be next. So, we evolved into giving a third of our profits to grassroots organisations that are really focused on mental health.

It was a big transition that we didn’t take lightly. We were pretty serious about doing our research and understanding what the change meant and making sure we were taking care of our existing partners. As we stopped giving them shoes, we wanted to make sure that they had plenty of time to readjust. That happened over a year and a half or so.

Moving into the Mental Health space is a big jump from one-to-one giving. What was it that made you decide to go down this route, as opposed to a different one?

We have 15 years of knowledge around shoe giving and so, although it might just feel easy to continue down this path, there were so many other things happening. We did a good bit of reflecting on what we learned through shoe giving and where we thought we could have the greatest impact.

One of the things we learned is that when you give a child a new pair of well-fitting shoes that are activity appropriate, their confidence is boosted, they feel better about themselves and they feel more empowered to do things. We took that learning and said, 'where do we feel like we can fill a white space in?' In the world of nonprofit, we really felt like that’s what is really relevant to our consumer. So we decided to start exploring the mental health space.

We know that one in eight people in the world are dealing with a mental challenge every single year. This is something that I'm so glad we're talking about more as a society. But it is also something that we committed to before it became really mainstream. We also know that about half the people that are dealing with a mental health challenge don't know where to start. They don't know where to get that first resource or to ask that first question. And so, we're really focused on providing people with first step resources.

We work with small organisations and local communities to help make that happen. I'll use the US as an example because it's familiar to me and I got to spend some time with them. We worked with an organisation called Break Trails, which is a leadership development camp for LGBTQ+ youth. They recognised that they had youth joining the programme that needed some mental health support, so we helped to fund their first mental health counsellor that came on-site during camp each year.

You recently launched the Wear Good Capsule collection, can you tell us more about this?

Yes. So that was one of the ways you can help people understand that there is a new tagline with this new beautiful product. Not only does it include footwear, but it also includes apparel and accessories. It was all grounded in green, which is the colour of mental health support and awareness. It was just a small fun way for us to kind of announce to the world that we're about wearing good and that we want people to come along.

How do you bridge the gap between purchasing a pair of shoes and accessing mental health support?

It's such a great question and we are really working through that now. We’re definitely known as the original one-for-one company, right? Most people know our story. Now our work as a team is to bring the new tagline to life.

Before, one for one was our tagline, and now we have a new tagline that says were good. So that good is about your ability to change someone's life through your purchase. It's still the idea of when you buy, something wonderful happens for someone else, it's just not necessarily one-for-one. If you bought a shoe, someone got a shoe, now if you buy a shoe, you help someone get access to a mental health resource. That's a mouthful!

‘Wear good’ is a grounding new tagline for TOMS that we hope everyone feels connected to. That's our work. That's the storytelling we need to do to help people understand.

Now we're saying, 'TOMS has a beautiful product line, there's something for everyone. Come and be part of our community by purchasing a product and along with that you get to help with mental health resources'.

We’re making sure that we're doing smart storytelling along with showing people beautiful products on offer.

Even though shoes are the driving force behind TOMS, you’ve introduced apparel and accessories. Why did you expand your product offering?

We're known for the classic TOMS and that product is still absolutely relevant. Now it comes in so many core colours. But, we’ve expanded that in terms of prints, colours, textures and patterns so have what we call iterations and extensions. We know that platforms are in vogue right now, for example, so we’ve made a platform iteration of the product that attracts a wider demographic of people.

To stay relevant, we’ve also expanded into some beautiful sandals for the spring/summer timeframe,and then boots and booties for fall/winter. This really allows you to be part of the TOMS community year-round and that's just on the footwear side. We also have eyewear, both optical and sun (available in the US), which we call ‘affordable luxury’.

TOMS products come under the ‘stylish comfort’ category. We believe our consumer doesn't want to give up comfort for style. So, that's something that we're also really focused on whether its on the footwear or apparel side of things. To be honest, we just want to have fun with the apparel. We do tees, hats and hoodies that send positive messages into the world.

Are there any exciting new launches we can expect to see?

I think there are many, many exciting things on the product side. We are really focused on footwear, that's our priority. We want to expand, like I said, into a diversified category so that we can have a 365-day offering while still really leaning into the TOMS DNA. When you pick up any product from TOMS, you know it's TOMS and that's our product team’s challenge. We need to make sure we're staying true to TOM but that we're also connecting the story of mental health together. We want to make sure that customers understand when they buy TOMS that they’re doing good.

I am absolutely obsessed with our spring/ summer 2024 line. I can't tell you anything special yet other than we have some beautiful new products coming out. They are extensions and iterations of that core TOMS product. I want to wear them right now! I'm really hopeful that the world gets to see this product and is as excited about it as I am.

How do you appeal to the younger generation, such as Gen Z, who aren't familiar with TOMS?

We're really committed to widening our audience and we actually have a fabulous new Footwear Design Merchandise Leader, and then also a Creative Director on the on the product side. This will be reflected more and more in the 2024 line.

When it comes to the next generation of consumers, they’re savvier than ever. I have always felt like ‘voting your values with your wallet’ is the best way to create change in the world and the next generation of consumers doing that more than any before it.

You have to do your research to see what other brands are doing and what they're not doing. If they don't have a set of values or purpose, consumers aren't as interested in buying from them. So, we've stayed true to our core.

Everybody has that story of ‘when I got my first  TOMS I remember…’. We have so many people who joined us in the giving back movement and we want to bring some people back who maybe thought ‘they’re not for me anymore’ - so that's why we've expanded the product line. That's why we're doing these iterations and extensions.

From a marketing standpoint, we’re focused on connecting the product with the impact you can have by saying when you buy TOMS you’re doing good. We're making sure that shoppers understand the connection to the nonprofit partners and the impact they're having by being part of the TOMS community.

Brave Trails is one of 22 partners that we work with in the mental health space and we can't do that without our consumers. So, if we can get that message across through our social media, through our campaigns and through what we put out into the world, then I think we're all in a better place.

As you said, TOMS is 17 years old. The market is over-saturated now, but TOMS stands out as the original one-for-one company. How do you capitalise on that?

As the original one-for-one, it was just time for us to innovate. To stay relevant and by listening to our customers, it was time for us to try something new.

Our customers are saying, "Gosh, there are so many things happening in my local community". We were mostly giving shoes and developing countries because that's where they were needed. It didn't really make sense for us to give shoes in the UK or in the United States.

So now we're able to really provide mental health resources for everyone. We give resources to those who need them. I liken it to hunger. We all know what it feels like to be hungry and so it's really easy to make that connection with mental health. I think now more than ever, we all know what it feels like to not have our best mental health day, so we can empathise more than sympathise, right? I know it's cliché, but since Covid days, we’re all in this together. Since the pandemic, everyone has been so impacted in terms of mental health. With our new business model, our customers have a direct impact on helping the non-profits in their local communities. I mean, how much cooler can it get?

How do you balance giving one-third of profits to charity while remaining profitable?

One-third of our profits is the same as what we did with shoes and we have maintained that commitment from day one. When business is tough, we still give. For example, we didn't make as much profit during Covid and with all the supply chain issues that were happening.

We did our financial homework to make sure we really can always give at that level, no matter what's happening with the business. And of course, we have to grow and make money in order to come out with new products and be able to support our partners beyond the grants that we give.

That’s the blessing of starting out as a purpose-driven company. It's really hard for companies that haven't done it all along and are trying to figure out how they can give. I do feel like we can have a bit of a cheat because we started that way from day one and our business model is based on it.

You recently launched in M&S, are you looking to further expand your third-party channels?

From a business standpoint, expanding our third-party offering is really relevant to the audience. Here in the UK, we just started with M&S, and soon we’ll be in JD Sports.

We’ve also expanded into Mexico and Nigeria. We're looking at continued smart expansion where it makes the most sense for the business.

What does the future look like for TOMS?

My dream is that more and more people who remember TOMS come back to the brand. I also hope that those who've never been exposed to TOMS find a product that they love and then realise that they're also able to do this amazing thing – helping non-profits - with their purchase. I hope folks who are part of our community think that this mental health movement is incredibly important. I'm just really proud that we all get to be a part of it.

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