Twenty years ago outdoor enthusiast Mark Thatcher had a problem: when he rafted, his shoes got wet and weighted down. Flip-flops were an alternative, but they are too flimsy to handle rugged outdoor terrain. His solution was to morph a shoe with a flip-flop, creating a sport sandal called Teva (Hebrew for nature), which the company calls "the spirit of a sandal with the soul of a shoe."
The fact that a new brand of sandal would hit the ground running may not come as a surprise. From the beach to city sidewalks, naked toes are everywhere as sandals become the obvious alternative to shoes in summer months. But Tevas are unique in that they are lacking aesthetically -- basically thereís just nothing cute about the shoe. It wasnít created with the intent to be visually appealing or to appeal to the masses; it was all about function, about filling a need for outdoor enthusiasts who were slowed down by wet feet.
The lack of beauty may explain why Mark Thatcher skipped retail stores when it came to selling the sandal. Instead he went straight to the rivers and sold 200 pairs to rafters in his first year. From there it didnít take long for Tevas to appeal to a vast, uncharted market that went beyond rafters. Soon consumers from college students to moms to Dead Heads were all sporting Tevas. Extreme comfort trumped any aversion to the odd-looking footwear.
Thatcher set up shop in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Teva headquarters remain today. Although he canít claim to be the sole inventor of rugged sandals (well-made sandals for rough terrain date back to AD 500), he was the first to make a major change to the basic sandal since the rubber flip-flop appeared shortly after World War II. For this, Teva was granted a patent.
Thatcher soon partnered with Decker Outdoor Corp., which markets Teva (along with shoe brands Simple and Ugg). Decker Outdoor takes on the challenge of protecting the brand from copycat competitors (e.g., Nike and Reef) and knock-offs by avoiding outlet sales. Tevas are sold in specialty sports and athletic footwear stores.
With just a single office in Flagstaff, Teva had to rely on more than its many enthusiasts to spread the word. In 1996 Teva stepped up the Web, creating a site, and two years later, was selling its complete line of sandals online. Now the site, which accurately portrays an outdoorsy, adventurous brand, is a spot to shop and catch up on all the places the brand has extended into.
The site also sells what has turned into a massive line of shoes and sandals. Still sticking to comfort and function, there are different styles for men, women and children, covering a variety of functions; some models of the sandal are described as the perfect shoe to run to the store in while others are described as a shoe that will allow you to run both trails and rivers.
Teva goes beyond just shoe sales to strengthen its outdoor extreme sports brand image. The company sponsors sporting events that are recognized worldwide for top athletic competition. Along with events, Teva also individually sponsors some of the best extreme athletes worldwide.
Another key component of its brand image and appeal among outdoor enthusiasts can be found in the commitment Teva makes to the environment. This includes an internal corporate program that focuses on conservation and recycling as well as support of various independent environmental groups.
Despite what seems like all the right moves from a brand strategy point of view, the brand hasn't been free from controversy. Decker Outdoor products are made overseas. Whatís a homegrown US brand, born and bred in Arizona, first made in California, doing sporting a tag that reads ďMade in ChinaĒ? Globalization seems an obvious wrong turn for this wholesome American brand. When red flags went up, Thatcher voiced his defense of the move overseas by taking the strong, unapologetic stance that Teva was providing jobs where they were needed, and business is business -- itís cheaper to produce the shoe overseas.
Whether it was his voiced confidence or the fact that people just couldnít give up the comfort of the sandal, the brand continues to thrive. Privately held, Teva makes up about 60 percent of Decker Outdoor sales, which totaled US$ 99.1 million in 2002. Thatís with Teva remaining a single-office shop in Flagstaff, staffed by a mere 25 employees.
Whatís next? The Teva brand plans to continue to extend its brand, and it will continue to be made overseas. The brand extension began three years ago when it started producing hiking shoes, close-toed water shoes and winter boots in addition to the traditional sports sandal. The next step is to extend outside the footwear arena as it starts to produce sporting apparel.
The long-standing question of whether or not the brand is extending itself too far remains, and the clothing line isnít out yet so itís hard to tell if soon outdoor enthusiasts will take to the Teva logo on clothing. So far the way consumers have flipped for the brand, itís hard to imagine the new venture will flop.