The story of the Havaianas brand—and flip-flops—is equally compelling. As mentioned in this brandchannel webwatch from 2006, Havaianas, was keen to differentiate itself from the perception of being a flip-flop brand. Flip-flops were considered cheap and shoddy. But time has changed all of that.
Apparently, not even Havaianas could have predicted the extent to which the image of flip-flops would change over the past few years. Somehow this non-shoe became a sensation, setting the footwear industry squarely on its head.
The flip-flop enjoys such notoriety that it has become the center of promotional campaigns. In 2005, for example, Old Navy celebrated the switch to Daylight Savings as “The First Official Day of Flip-Flops.” At the same time, Old Navy kicked off its “Top Flip-Flop Model Contest,” a national search for “America’s most beautiful feet.” The grand prize included 365 pairs of flip-flops.
In April 2008, Air New Zealand launched a “Flip My Flop” campaign to promote its non-stop service from Los Angeles to London’s Heathrow Airport. According to Roger Poulton, Air New Zealand’s vice president, Americas, “We are using the flip-flop as an iconic symbol that resonates among LA residents, but is just odd enough to keep Londoners on their feet. Plus, we’re giving the popular footwear a little personality as only Air New Zealand can!” The campaign included unique flip-flops created by celebrities and designers, as well as an ad showing a British guardsman wearing flip-flops instead of boots.
The flip-flop has taken on a life of its own, becoming a kind of generic super-brand. Today’s flip-flop-seeking consumer can buy everything from promotional flip-flops imprinted with company logos or university names, to “FitFlops,” the new UK “fashion-fitness” version, to “PechPlatinum,” exclusive flip-flops made of crocodile skin that sell for US$ 400 a pair.
It’s a wonder how any brand even begins to compete in this multi-faceted footwear category. But there is one brand that manages to stay on solid ground: Havaianas—the Coca-Cola of flip-flops.
Havaianas, which means Hawaiians in Portuguese, are manufactured by Brazilian company Sao Paulo Alpargatas S.A. In 1907, simple sandals called Alpargatas were worn by coffee farmers in Brazil.
The company says its Havaianas were inspired by Japanese woven flip-flops known as zoris, but flip-flops—technically a type of thong sandal—are actually thousands of years old.
In 1962, Alpargatas began to produce its version of zoris in quantity, using a “secret rubber recipe.” Since the product’s introduction, 2.2 billion pairs of Havaianas have been produced and sold throughout the world, according to the company. If the sandals were laid end to end, they would encircle the globe 50 times. That’s a lot of flip-flops.
Today, despite the countless knock-offs and sustained popularity of flip-flops, Havaianas continues to dominate the worldwide market, with market share as high as 10 percent by some estimates. One reason is that Havaianas, unlike cheap competitors, are soft, comfortable, and durable. But just as important, Havaianas have developed what amounts to a cult following. When Alpargatas began exporting them in 2001, Havaianas’ popularity skyrocketed.
While the United States is not the sole driver of footwear fashion, acceptance of a brand by American consumers and celebrities tends to fuel its growth. Happily for Alpargatas, that’s exactly what happened with Havaianas. The sandals began showing up on the feet of movie stars and rock stars, then appearing on fashion runways.
The company carefully cultivated the celebrity market by producing special edition Havaianas just for them. “Oscar gift basket sandals” were awarded to Oscar nominees during the Academy Awards. The flip-flops were hand-stitched and encrusted with Swarovski Crystal. Equally glitzy sandals were created as a backstage gift for stars who appeared at the Grammy Awards.
Of course, success didn’t happen overnight. In the mid-1990s, hurt by a sales and profit downturn, Alpargatas introduced a new sandal called Havaianas TOP, which the beautiful people found appealing. A subsequent advertising campaign, positioning Havaianas as an elegant and unique product, gave the brand a needed boost. By 2000, some of the world’s top celebrities were seen sporting the sandals, and the brand has been climbing ever since. Currently, about five pairs of Havaianas are produced each second. About 22 million pairs are exported each year.
Still, Havaianas will always face competition, both from low-end copycats and from companies anxious to capitalize on the high-end flip-flop frenzy. The previously mentioned “PechPlatinum” crocodile flip-flops are the product of a company called PecheBlu, which says it is making “sports flip-flops,” more athletic sandals that are also stylish. The company calls its PechPlatinums “the most expensive flip-flops in the world.”
But crocodile flip-flops are pretty tame, compared with the novel flip-flops created by Reef. This is a company that clearly believes flip-floppers are focused on having a good time. Reef offers a number of models just for fun, including one that has a built-in bottle opener in the sole, and another that features an “encapsulated polyurethane canteen heel” so you can take a swig from your flip-flop.
There seems to be no end in sight to variations on the flip-flop theme. This is a journey Havaianas has taken, and will continue to take, one step at a time.