Hush Puppies: Teaching an old dog new tricks

After more than 60 years, comfort footwear brand Hush Puppies has had a makeover. Gone are the traditional beige grandpa shoes and expected marketing collateral and in their place are cooler shoe collections, fun collaborations and activities, updated store concepts and an exciting gamification campaign to launch in September.

“It took us probably a year and a half to find our feet, and being predominantly wholesale with a smaller retail network, it took a lot longer to turn it around,” says Hush Puppies general manager Charlene Perera. “But the last two years for us have just been on the up, which has been really amazing for a heritage brand in this climate. So we’ve seen growth across our retail network, online and our department stores.” 

According to Perera, in FY18, Hush Puppies’ online sales grew by 21 per cent. In FY19, they grew by 7 per cent, and wholesale and retail sales each grew by more than 2 per cent.

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“It’s taken a long time to tell the customer that this is who we are now because they had put us in a box – the nanna box. And that’s OK because that was the box we had put ourselves in. It’s really been through more dynamic, interesting marketing and unexpected pop-ups that we’ve been showing off our brand and not just doing the same things.”

Style meets comfort

According to Perera, while Hush Puppies is based in the US, the brand turnaround has largely been led by the Australian team, which designs 90 per cent of the local collection.

To breathe new life into the brand, the updated Hush Puppies range is now focused on the everyday woman who wants both style and comfort, says Perera. More collections across both men’s and women’s are planned for launch in the near future, too.

There has also since been a global push by Hush Puppies in the US towards a cooler spin on the brand. An updated collection of the signature Power Walkers, which were released in 1999, has been launched, and now the sneakers are available in a range of bright modern colours, including silver, turquoise, bright blue and blush.

“I think in the women’s space, we had really allowed ourselves to get old – we were aging with our customer,” Perera says.

“It’s fun for us to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. We know that [the Power Walkers] were the grandpa shoes that everyone relates to Hush Puppies, but in slightly less cooler colours. The heart of the brand for me is it’s happy and optimistic – it’s backed by a little dog!”

A new store experience

Like many other categories, the race to the bottom in terms of price is a challenge for the footwear sector, but while discount chains may be producing similar shoes to Hush Puppies, they’re not attracting the same customer who wants to invest in leather and quality, says Perera. Currently, other comfort brands don’t seem to be innovating either, so from a competitive point of view, Hush Puppies is focusing on its own journey towards creating better products for its customers.

“Foot traffic in retail has also been a challenge as well as people shopping online,” says Perera. “But the exciting thing is that what we’re doing in the retail space, [our customer] is there. While I know people have had a challenging winter – and a challenging couple of years even – we’ve gone from a seven-store-network, which was extremely average, to now chasing leases.”

Indeed, in October, Perera and her team will be rolling out a new Hush Puppies concept store in Southland in Melbourne, which will be followed by further store openings in the future. Earlier this year, Hush Puppies also unveiled eight new shops-in-shops across Myer stores.

“It is basically a full fitout, so it looks like our retail shop is in the middle of the store,” says Perera. “Generally, we’re in slightly more suburban areas with our retail stores, so being able to showcase our brand properly in Bourke Street, Sydney city and Chadstone has done amazing things for the equity of the brand.”

According to Perera, the new shop-in-shop fitouts have demonstrated “a massive turnaround for the brand”, trading on average 12 per cent higher than the state averages of Myer stores. Key standouts include the Brisbane and Melbourne CBD stores, which are trading respectively at 23 and 16 per cent higher than their state averages.

Fun and games

Next month, as part of a campaign to promote the “Bounce” technology within their shoes, Hush Puppies will launch an online game on its website for customers, which will be promoted for four weeks across radio stations in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. 

In each state, Hush Puppies will run an activation, where radio announcers representing customers at the top of the leaderboard will then battle it out against each other in zorb balls.

According to Perera, it is these “unexpected” and fun initiatives that have helped to redirect the brand and give it new life.

“For our 60th birthday last year, we threw a party, We invited all the buyers into our office, the customers that shop in our store, all our team and we raffled off the car on the night. It was a massive party, you know. It’s fun stuff and I don’t think [other brands] are doing it. And I think those little things go a really long way,” she says.

Earlier this year, Hush Puppies was the official shoe of the Mardi Gras and a sparkly rainbow pair of shoes were created specifically for the event. When the brand turned 60 last year, it went on a music road trip around Australia, paying homage to the rich rock ’n’ roll history behind the brand – musician Keith Richards famously wore a pair during a Rolling Stones concert. 

Living life on the bright side

When Perera came on board four years ago, she rebuilt the Hush Puppies team and transformed the brand and workplace culture by focusing on creating a more exciting and collaborative vibe for the business. The team has also recently worked on its values and purpose, which are centred around optimism, working together as a team, being constantly curious and having fun. 

“I think the brand got old when we stopped falling in love with the new things that were happening out in the world,” says Perera. 

“But they’re the four values that we can really be led by now. Our overarching brand is to inspire our customers to live life on the bright side. And you can really feel it now. If I think about where the team, the product and the energy in the stores was four years ago and now when I go in, I can feel the happiness. I can feel that the product is more loved and the customer feels that too.”

One of the new staff initiatives at Hush Puppies has been “random acts of kindness”, where sales assistants now have the ability to offer customers free coffee cards or pairs of shoes, at their discretion.

“So if someone comes in and they’re having a really shit day…[staff] have the flexibility to go ‘You know what? Just take the shoes’,” says Perera. “They’re just little things that we can do to pep up people’s day and give the store teams the ability to create warmth in our stores.”

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