From Post Malone and Pixar to digital gear and NFTs, the company’s chief marketing officer leads one of the most polarizing players in fashion.
BY MARTY SWANT
Heidi Cooley remembers her very first Crocs: A bright yellow pair she got in 2007 around the time the hole-filled shoes first gained traction. She also remembers how people reacted nearly a decade later, when in 2016 she told everyone her plans to join the company’s marketing department.
“I got a lot of phone calls from colleagues and mentors and friends that were like, ‘Heidi, this is career suicide. Do not think you can transform this brand,’” says Cooley, who became senior vice president and chief marketing officer last year. “But I was always attracted to the underdog story and the opportunity to build a consumer-centric marketing organization pretty much from the ground up.”
These days, she says, her friends are instead texting her for clogs.
Founded in 2002, Crocs has gone from hip to has-been to hype. As the Colorado-based company celebrates two decades this year, Cooley—one of 50 marketers named to the inaugural Forbes Entrepreneurial CMOs 2022 list—is at the helm of another heyday. And in a mere few years, the company has collaborated with dozens of celebrities and brands ranging from Bad Bunny and Justin Bieber to Vera Bradley and KFC.
While some fashion labels go more high-brow, Crocs has embraced the weird. Past collaborations include food brands like Hidden Valley Ranch and Peeps as well as movie franchises like “Toy Story,” “Cars,” “Space Jam,” and “Hocus Pocus.” Other Crocs collections include those with artists Takashi Murakami and Ron English; designers Christopher Kane, Vivienne Tam and Anwar Carrots; actress Yang Mi; and musicians ranging from Luke Combs and Kiss to Diplo and Karol G.
The strategy—which Cooley describes as “globally led and locally relevant”—has paid off. In 2021, revenues increased 67% year-over-year to $2.3 billion, and the company said it has plans to grow to $6 billion by 2026. Since January 2017, Crocs’ stock has jumped from $7 per share to a high of $180 in November 2021. (After it bought the Italian shoe brand Hey Dude in December, Crocs shares fell 12% and have continued to decline to its mid-April price of around $73 per share.)
The range of partners isn’t something that all companies would welcome. Cooley says it’s the accessibility and polarity that allows the marketing team to be highly creative. After all, it’s the nature of Crocs’ reputation—including the ridicule it receives—that gives it the green light to experiment. And while some companies identify fans based on demographics, Cooley has led Crocs to focus more on identifying customer behavior. That shift has helped it move beyond consumers that have “aged out” to instead connect “cultural relevancy with the brand.”
“We’re not trying to go after an age,” she says. “We’re trying to go after either a trend from a product perspective, or a cultural insight from a brand perspective, which really allows us to do what makes sense for Crocs in the moment.”
The catalyst for collaborations all started with Post Malone, who in 2018 tweeted: “u can tell a lot about a man by the jibbits on his crocs,” referencing the charms that Crocs fans put in the holes of their shoes. After that, Crocs direct-messaged the rapper on Twitter to see if he’d be interested in making something with them, and four months later they debuted their first collaboration. Cooley recalls needing to go through the company’s legal department to make sure lawyers approved of them working with someone who had “Beerbongs and Bentleys” written in their Twitter bio—a reference to Post Malone’s 2018 album.
“We have incredible partnership across the organization,” Cooley says. “Legal helps us get to ‘yes’ for just about any and every idea we’ve ever come up with. We have a lot of autonomy and trust from a senior leadership perspective to deliver against the strategy. They expect us to keep our brand relevant and to do it in a way that’s responsive to our fans.”
Cooley has also helped Crocs look for ways to leverage the brand in ways that benefit societal and sustainability efforts. During the pandemic, the company gave away more than 850,000 shoes to frontline health care workers—a program that she says came together in just a week. Last year, Crocs announced plans to make its shoes all bio-based with renewable products.
Beyond brand collaborations, Crocs continues to experiment on the digital front. Last fall, the company debuted a way for Snapchat users to dress their Bitmoji avatars with digital versions of the shoes, and earlier this year Crocs debuted its first NFT collection with the Parisian label Egonlab. Other recent digital efforts have included building a world within Minecraft last summer and a partnership with NBA2K to let gamers have their characters wear Crocs while playing basketball. Crocs was also among the first footwear brands on TikTok and a previous partnership with Snap let consumers try on shoes via an augmented reality lens.
“All we needed to do was listen to our fans and then candidly do what a lot of brands don’t,” Cooley says. “Which is actually respond.”
Six year into the gig, joining the quirky shoe brand hasn’t been a dead-end. Cooley still has her original yellow Crocs—along with around 50 other pairs. (She jokes that she has to get rid of one whenever she brings home another.) But five years and around 70 collaborations later, maybe that isn’t too many.
“Part of our consumer-centric strategy is we don’t miss very often,” she says. “We’re not sitting around in a room trying to guess what people want.”