Hush Puppies A Global Brand

    ROCKFORD — Mark Neal doesn’t usually read the funny pages in Argentina, but one comic strip delighted him so much, he keeps a copy of it.

    “What brand is this dog?” the comic strip boy asks his father about a Dalmatian. The father corrects him: “Dogs are breeds, not brands.” “But this one is a brand,” the boy insists in the next frame, pointing to the famous Hush Puppies basset hound that has popped up next to him.

    As president of Hush Puppies International for Rockford’s Wolverine World Wide, Neal is happy to be working with a brand symbol that is ubiquitous in the 135 countries around the world where the shoe line is sold. The name is so well known in English, it’s translated on a store sign only in one Arabic nation.

    Hush Puppies is the flagship brand for Wolverine, which built its first shoe factory in Rockford in 1903. The Hush Puppies brand was created in 1958 as the company developed products that could be made from a new pigskin suede invented by the end of World War II.

    The company reported a progressive first quarter this year, pointing in particular to its brands Merrell, Sebago, CAT and Harley-Davidson and noting double-digit profit growth for Hush Puppies, which has 350 “concept stores” around the world.

    The Hush Puppies brand occupies space in upscale malls and swanky stores in places such as London, Beijing, and Dubai. While Hush Puppies went international in 1959 right from its inception, today international sales are gaining quickly in proportion to overall brand sales, Neal said.

    “We choose to find good local partners and work with them to develop the market and sell the Hush Puppies brand and Hush Puppies products,” Neal said. “In the early days, we looked for companies that had manufacturing capabilities because they really designed, developed and manufactured a lot of their own product. Today, that’s changed, and what we’re really looking for are companies that are good marketing companies and that have retail expertise. Manufacturing — now, that’s not what’s driving the business. We can get shoes made in a lot of places.

    “But what’s really critical is finding good partners that can market a brand and that can operate concept stores.”

    And some of those companies in other countries have worked with Hush Puppies as long as 45 years, he added.

    He sees potential for continued, strong growth in overseas sales, in particular in China, India and Russia.

    “China is a developing market. The potential is tremendous, partly because there are 1.3 billion people there,” he said. “What we like about China, India, Russia — those are three markets that everybody has a lot of buzz, those are markets we see as big opportunities, an emerging middle class. China has a huge potential. It’s still a relatively small piece of our business, but one we think will grow.”

    In China, for example, Hush Puppies has 145 retail locations, either concept stores or dedicated space in shoe or department stores called “shop-in-shops,” Neal said.

    “Concept stores are Hush Puppies stores that really feature Hush Puppies products, Hush Puppies lifestyle marketing images. They’re all about the brand. They’re really our window to the consumer around the world. This is becoming an increasingly important part of our business.”

    This week, Hush Puppies partners from around the world will gather in Grand Rapids for what Neal called a “concept conference.” They’ll be given samples of the latest products and product sources, he said. But the company also gives them an entire marketing package — mostly contained in one binder and on two DVDs — right down to posters for window displays, brochures, advertising and the layout of stores, he said.

    “Around the world, whether it’s Manila, Philippines, Sydney, Australia, or Tokyo, Japan, you can see the same Hush Puppies lifestyle image, the same product shot in the window,” Neal said. “We create all of that here in Rockford, so that if you go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Lima, Peru, or New Delhi, India, you’re going to see a consistent global message.

    “We’re really working very hard at establishing a global identity for the brand, and much of that is accomplished through the concept stores. What’s changed is the speed at which new concept stores are being developed. Our goal this year is to add an additional 50 retail locations, and that would be a combination of concept stores and shop-in-shops.”

    Hush Puppies is the smallest of Wolverine’s four operating groups in terms of revenue, at about $170 million or 15 percent of company revenue, according to figures in the annual report. Last year found particularly strong markets in Europe and Canada. Slipper revenue faded by $2.1 million as the company is phasing out of the slipper business.

    For Wolverine as a whole, 33 percent of revenues came from overseas, compared to 15 percent in 2000, Neal said. It sold 47 million pairs of footwear in 2006, 56 percent of them overseas. Of those pairs, 18 million, or 38 percent, were Hush Puppies brand, Neal said.

    “When you have a brand that was created 50 years ago, you need to evolve, and so one of the things we’re working very hard at — not only in the U.S. but around the world, in some of the markets we’ve been in for nearly 50 years internationally — we need to continually create a vibrant and exciting brand spirit.”

    Even amid the attractive models pictured in in-store images and billboards, the Hush Puppies basset hound remains a fixture.

    “That’s one of our other strengths,” Neal said. “The Hush Puppies icon is so well recognized around the world that it has made a powerful competitive advantage for our business.

    “I was in Russia a year or so ago. I was at a show and we had the Hush Puppies logo up there, and a couple of them walked by and said ‘Hush Puppies.’ So I approached them, thinking they could speak English. They couldn’t speak English, but they could recognize the logo as Hush Puppies.” 

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