What do you get when you combine a young, energetic entrepreneur, a philanthropic mindset, and a somewhat quirky -- yet trendy -- product line? In the case of TOMS shoes, you get one of the most successful examples of “social entrepreneurism” and brand building in recent memory.
Blake Mycoskie was a scruffy American backpacker visiting Argentina in 2006, when he was struck by two things: On a personal level, he was moved by the poverty he observed all around, especially among children – many of whom had never owned a pair of shoes. The lack of shoes left the kids vulnerable to a variety of soil-transmitted diseases and of course injuries, abrasions, and infections – all of which undermined the ability of the children to succeed at school, participate in sports, or on a most basic level, simply enjoy a normal childhood.
Mycoskie noticed something else as well – a ubiquitous style of canvas slip-on shoes indigenous to Argentina, known as alpargatas. Having been worn by farmers for hundreds of years, alpargatas are now commonly worn by all segments of Argentine society. Slipping on a pair of these comfortable and versatile shoes, Mycoskie was hooked.
From these experiences, the concept behind TOMS began to take shape in Mycoskie’s mind. He returned home to California determined to start a shoe company – a shoe company with a difference, that is. TOMS (a shortened version of “Shoes for Tomorrow Project”) would manufacture and sell a line of simple alpargatas-inspired shoes. Nothing extraordinary about that. What was extraordinary however was TOMS “One for One initiative”: For every pair of TOMS shoes sold, TOMs would donate a pair of shoes to impoverished children throughout the developing world. This innovative combination of philanthropic zeal and a uniquely fresh product quickly propelled TOMS from small-scale start-up to global player.
By 2011, the brand was being carried by over 500 retailers world-wide, and more than 2 million pairs of shoes had been given away to children in developing countries around the globe. Corporate heavyweights such as AT&T and Ralph Lauren have developed collaborations with TOMS, and pop culture icons ranging from the Jonas Brothers to the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders have also become involved.
One especially successful aspect of the TOMS brand-building strategy has been “old fashioned” word of mouth marketing (supercharged by the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, of course). The “One for One” initiative means that people who buy TOMS shoes are more than just customers, in a sense, they are partners in a philanthropic endeavor. The social development component of the transaction model seems to make TOMS customers more likely to share the TOMS story with friends, family, and colleagues, and makes the brand a more attractive potential partner to other businesses, eager to burnish their corporate social responsibility credentials.
The TOMS business model is not without its critics, however. Some charge that the effort personifies the so-called “slacktivism” mentality, i.e. social development campaigns that seem to be more about making well-off Westerners “feel good” about themselves, rather than addressing the underlying issues driving poverty and disease. From this point of view, the real issue is why are there so many children in Argentina living impoverished lives in the first place?
To others, these criticisms ring hollow. In TOMS, they see a company deeply committed to sharing its largesse with those who are less fortunate. And charges that TOMS could somehow be doing more misses the larger point: thousands upon thousands of poor children who otherwise would be barefoot instead have shoes on their feet today, thanks to TOMS and its customers.
Irrespective of which point of view might be more compelling, one point remains incontrovertible: TOMS innovative approach to “social entrepreneurism” has built not just a successful company, but also a global brand.