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Case Study: How Timberland Used a Smart Sustainability Story to Launch a Hot New Line (Includes Tactics & Lessons Learned)

Background

For clothing manufacturer and retailer Timberland, creating outdoor products with environmental benefits is a business necessity. “We’ve done a lot of consumer research, and we know that if we put two products side by side, one from our brand and one from a competitor’s, and if they’re comparable in price and quality, the majority of time a customer will choose our product if it’s made with some sort of ‘green’ element,” says Margaret Morey-Reuner, director of Timberland’s strategic partnerships and business development. “They consider the environmental benefit as a true gift of purchase.”

In an exclusive interview with Environmental Leader, Morey-Reuner shared the business case, tactics, challenges, and results from the launch of Thread X, a successful new collection from Timberland that sparks a customer’s interest, engages them with a story, and, ultimately, has an extremely successful sell-through rate.

Challenge

Timberland’s customers expect the company to be stewards of the environment, and they the story behind the product. In fact, the company’s Earthkeepers line of boots, which set strict design criteria around recycled, organic and renewable material – and shared those design criteria with the public – quickly became one of its bestselling lines when it was released in 2007.

With that in mind, the company set a goal of having 100% of its products feature at least some recyclable, renewable and/or organic material by 2020. In order to reach that goal, the company needed to expand partnerships with providers.

One of the company’s challenges, however, is in knowing – for sure – the true provenance of the material used in its products. Timberland uses a third-party certification process with its suppliers, but Morey-Reuner still didn’t feel they could always track materials to their very source.

Another challenge Morey-Reuner faced is that in the past, Timberland would work with a partner to create a terrific product and grow demand, only to find the partner was not in a position to scale.

Morey-Reuner knew she needed a partnership with a provider that had a good story to tell, a great material to provide as the basis for a new product line, and the ability to scale as the product line – and the partnership – grew.

Solution

As Timberland began to research potential partners, they were graced with a bit of serendipity: Morey-Reuner was project lead for Timberland’s efforts with local farmers and communities in Haiti when Ian Rosenberger, the founder of a Haitian start-up company called Thread, reached out to her. Rosenberger, who traveled to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, noticed “a lot of poverty, and a lot of trash.” He launched Thread to help Haiti turn that trash into money.

Thread creates fabric by hiring Haitians to collect the plastic bottles that litter streets and landfills and sell them to Haitian-owned and operated collection centers, where the plastic is made into a raw material called flake. Flake is sent to US-based factories where it is turned into fiber and woven into fabric. When Morey-Reuner and her team heard the story, learned that Thread monitors and tracks the chain of custody from the time the bottle is picked up off the ground to the time it is made into a product, and found that the PET fabric felt like “the softest organic cotton canvas,” they explored a partnership.

But partnerships are never as simple as they sound. Morey-Reuner had learned lessons from past partnerships. “So I took a different approach,” she says. “We brought our designers, developers and marketing team together with Thread from the beginning. We told them what we expected, and we got both internal and external alignment.”

One key element of the agreement was that Timberland needed to be flexible in its product development. “We feel an accountability to help them succeed,” she says. “That’s a different approach for us. We didn’t want to be a one-and-done marketing story.” With that in mind, Timberland’s design team worked closely with Thread’s development team to design and build the fabrics.

On the other side of the partnership, Thread needed to commit to growth so the Timberland brand could expand as needed. “Thread is looking at expanding in India and Asia to help us with our business at a global scale,” Morey-Reuner says. “If you can scale an idea, the cost will go down in the supply chain and that is of significant value.”

An important element of the partnership is the story. “Storytelling is a valuable marketing tactic, so there is a real benefit into putting resources into these types of partnerships,” she says. Thread communicates the social and economic impacts for Timberland’s website through photographic stories.

Results

Though Timberland doesn’t share specific sales results, Morey-Reuner says that sell-through for the Threads line, across all channels, has been excellent compared to other new programs.

Additionally, Timberland has seen two times the engagement on its social and digital channels with the Thread collection compared to any of its other CSR content. And consumers are spending 33% more time on the Thread page than on other pages of the Timberland site.

“We get to tell  a really great story to our consumers and show the true impact of products made with Thread. We know how much water we save, how many pounds of pesticides were avoided, how much revenue was generated for the bottle recyclers and collectors,” she says. “People can meet the people who helped make the product they purchased, and that’s a whole new thing.”

Three Key Lessons Learned:

  1. When it comes to new partnerships, get alignment with internal stakeholders. “Make sure everyone’s on board with the proposition, because you might have to do things differently from the norm.”
  2. When dealing with newer companies, both sides must understand the difference in culture between mature brands and startups. “Both companies are rooted in a shared set of values. But they have a lot of young folks on their team, they’re eager, and they’re flexible. A big company like us is like trying to turn an ocean liner, compared to a speedboat.” Understanding this from the beginning will make things run more smoothly.
  3. Use a tag-team approach so more than one person is involved in decision-making. “We had a few people at Timberland who moved on to other roles, and they were key in the partnership,” Morey-Reuner says. That makes it difficult to move a project forward. “Knowing the pension for that happening, we’ll handle it differently in the future. We’ll make sure more than one person is informed and engaged.”
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