How Vans CMO Kristin Harrer Is Changing How the Brand Speaks to Consumers

For much of 2022, Vans has been focused on reigniting the heat at the brand. The efforts include a shift in how it speaks to consumers, which has been led by global chief marketing officer Kristin Harrer.

Historically, Harrer said Vans has spoken to the expressive creator, someone who is focused on the moment of creation. Now, the exec said Vans has shifted its attention to the creative voyager, the consumer who is on a journey of self-discovery. This new muse has been targeted through experiences and marketing efforts, such as its entry into the metaverse via Roblox Vans World, as well as its “Classic Since Forever” and “These Projects Are Ads for Creativity” campaigns.

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The marketing expert, who joined Vans in April 2021, has a resume loaded with powerhouse names including Samsung, Wieden + Kennedy and the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, among others. Prior to Vans, Harrer most recently was the chief marketing officer at Dollar Shave Club.

Harrer’s background also includes footwear, calling Nike her professional home for more than four years.

Here, the exec reveals to FN why Vans was the right place for her to reenter the world of footwear and how the company’s marketing efforts will continue to transform.

Your professional athletic footwear and apparel experience prior to Vans includes a roughly four-plus year stint at Nike. What is the main difference between Vans and your former employer? 

“Vans is a family. We are a $4 billion and growing global brand in the VF portfolio that also feels like a startup, mom-and-pop shop. My office shares a wall with [Vans co-founder Paul Van Doren’s son] Steve Van Doren. To really get Vans you need to be there. It’s like this juxtaposition of a multibillion dollar global brand that feels like something that we all own a piece of, and no matter what your job is at Vans, you know what your impact is going to be. That’s really special and cool and different.”

Vans global brand president Kevin Bailey. - Credit: Courtesy of Vans
Vans global brand president Kevin Bailey. - Credit: Courtesy of Vans

Courtesy of Vans

What is your relationship like with Vans global brand president Kevin Bailey, who rejoined the company in March? And how would you describe the energy at the brand since his return in July?

“Love him, love him, love him. What’s great about him is not only his years of experience leading big global brands and big businesses, but he knows this brand. He knows the brand maybe better than most people in the building, with the exception of a few like Steve. I think we need that. He knows what the brand needs to get back on track, and has spent his time in the last six months building a leadership team that has some real focus. That feels really good. You combine Kevin’s returning leadership with an executive team that is finally set with a clear agreement on what we have to do to drive the next wave of growth, and we’re returning to the office, it feels like there’s momentum back. In the last year and a half, it feels energetically like things are shifting, which is good.”

What is the story of your first year as Vans global CMO?

“Coming back to this industry and to Vans is a dream job at this point in my career. Relationships are important at Vans. We’re starting to get back into the office, and I think it’s important for brand like Vans to have people exchanging energy in a physical place, creative energy, vibing off each other. We’ve been involved in so much in our 55 years, it’s like a treasure trove. I’m in a lot of ways still onboarding and will be for years because there’s a lot of discovery that’s happening. After the first few months, it became clear that we needed to take a hard look at our strategy and figure out what’s in the minds of consumers, not just how they think about footwear, how they think about creativity, but how they think about Vans. It has been five years since we had done a muse reset, 10 years since we had done a strategy reset. We took about a year to do that. My style is very collaborative, I don’t like to do anything alone. We did a big global research project, the results started coming back and we found a few things. One, people love Vans. The other thing is that people are in this place of creativity fatigue. When you’re locked in your home for three years looking at nothing but your phone, you’re thinking constantly about, ‘What am I going to put out into the world? How are people going to react to it? How many likes am I going to get? How my friends going to react to it?’ What we realized was that for our consumers, creativity shifted from this thing that you do to make something for external validation to the thing being almost a journey that you go on to figure out who you are. Everyone wants to own creativity. You look at what Adidas did a number of years ago, their platform ‘Here to Create,’ you look at companies like Apple, social media influencers — everyone is trying to own the space. For us to have a mission rooted in the idea of fueling creative self-expression, it just felt like what’s our angle? We took the realization of where consumers were and combined it into a new mission statement, which is a nuanced sharpening of where we’ve been.”

Since your arrival more than a year ago, you’ve been working on a new Vans mission and core belief system. What is the company’s new brand foundation?

“It’s our brand Bible, basically. It’s what we believe. It crystallizes our new muse. The muse that we worked with in the past was the expressive creator, leading into that idea of the moment of creation and what’s most important is making the painting or making the song. What we found through research is that it’s actually not it anymore. It’s not about making the TikTok or the Instagram post and the reaction you get to that. It’s about literally creating yourself. Shifting our views from the expressive creator to what we’re now calling internally the creative voyager very much leans into this idea of going on a journey of discovering who you are. That’s a promise that is timeless and multigenerational. There’s this cultural bias globally, but definitely in the U.S., that creativity is for young people, that intentionally trying to grapple with who you are is for young people. It’s not true. We’re all on a journey. When you talk about just making something like a painting, not everyone can relate to that. But when you talk about being comfortable in your own skin, everybody gets that. The final piece of the foundation is our mission, which is to take people and empower people on this journey of self-discovery, leveraging creativity and also a larger vision for the brand. If our mission is why we get up and get out of bed every day, our vision is what do we want to create in 50 years? What do we what do we want to continue to be known for? We’ve been known for being the brand of counterculture, and in some pockets of culture will still be that. As we grow and become an important brand for more people in different parts of the world, we want to be known for supporting individuality and being your unique itself. That’s our vision, to create a world where anybody can be themselves. The vision statement should sound wildly unattainable, and it does, but that that’s what makes a heart beat fast and makes us want to keep going.”

How will this new brand foundation inform future marketing efforts?

“It’s going to be the core of every brief we write — not just marketing briefs, but product briefs. One thing we’ve done recently to impact future seasonal development is we sit together as a leadership team across all core functions to look at the insights that come through and decide what we want our big stories to be together. That foundation is going to be the core of how we as a leadership team think about going to market holistically. That’s different for Vans. We haven’t operated like that before.”

Anderson .Paak in the Vans “Classic Since Forever” campaign. - Credit: Courtesy of Vans
Anderson .Paak in the Vans “Classic Since Forever” campaign. - Credit: Courtesy of Vans

Courtesy of Vans

How has the “Classic Since Forever” campaign impacted the Vans Classics footwear business?

“It launched initially with Anderson .Paak in July, and what we did intentionally — and I think it’s the first time that Vans has ever done this — but we structured the campaign globally so all of the regions could leverage and blow out in their own way. If you went to Shanghai when the campaign launched, they leaned really heavily into checkerboard. There’s checkerboard trends happening on the ground across APAC, but especially in China. Their windows had the Classics creative but the silhouettes they’re showing all had our checkerboard pattern. A few months ago in the fall in New York or anywhere in the Americas, you’d see [model] Paloma [Elsesser]. A totally different take, much more leaning into high fashion, leaning into women, trying to drive that demand with women for the Classics business. What I love about the campaign is that it’s supporting our biggest business. In the years before I got here, we took our eye off that ball. We were really focused on driving innovation, which we still are, but the key is having balance and doing both of those things. But we’re also complementing it. If you walk to the Union Square [New York] store, there’s ComfyCush in the window. If you then walk to the Meatpacking District, you’ll see MTE. We’re not taking our foot off the gas by any means on telling stories about our innovation pipeline, but we have to do both. We stopped talking about Classics for a while, and we can’t do that.”

Model Paloma Elsesser in the Vans “Classic Since Forever” campaign. - Credit: Courtesy of Vans
Model Paloma Elsesser in the Vans “Classic Since Forever” campaign. - Credit: Courtesy of Vans

Courtesy of Vans

The metaverse is a polarizing topic, and there are vastly different views on its current health. How, if at all, has that impacted Roblox Vans World?

“We pay attention to the noise, but our intention is to be where our consumers are. What are they into? What are they doing? What are they paying attention to? How can we meaningfully be there and create something that’s fun? Roblox, for us, is a great fit. The amount of identity switching that can happen on a platform like that happens already on social media, but this is a world where you can do more than try out different shoes. We launched a feature on Roblox a few months ago where you could put on checkerboard makeup, for example. The kind of identity switching that can happen in that space, and how that links back to going on a journey of self-discovery, is super important for us. For us, it’s a space to play, interact where our customers are and deliver on our brand promise.”

What does the future of Roblox Vans World look like?

“We have 80 million people who have accessed the brand on the platform, and a really high user rating of 94%. We will continue to introduce features, we’ll keep pushing into digital product. All of our Classics are super popular on the platform. Last February, we did a winterized execution with The North Face, a super popular part of the engagement, and we introduced BMX at one point. We’ll keep playing with the space and see where it goes. I think it also depends on how Roblox evolves.”

Will Vans continue with its artist-first “These Projects Are Ads for Creativity” campaign?

“That was our brand campaign for ’21-’22. First year, we were hit by COVID. Our entire mission is about creative self expression, but all of a sudden the people we served had no forum in which to express themselves — coffee shops, music venues, art galleries were closed. The intent behind that campaign was to take production dollars, work with 80 artists from around the world, and say, ‘Make something, we’ll tell the story.’ It was trying to literally hand the mic over at a time when there was dwindling support for creatives. When we got to the second chapter, we did the same things. We worked with creatives and we supported them. We gave them our production dollars and asked them to make something — but we did it through the lens of underrepresented communities. We worked with a bunch of women, for example. We worked with The Linda Lindas, we worked with an artist named Coco Dávez. We also worked with LatinX community and the AAPI community. On our next brand campaign, you’ll continue to see us support local communities and artists who need it, but instead of having the focus on what did you make, it’s going to be on who are you. The storytelling will be slightly different, and that is to shadow the evolution of our brand strategy. It will debut Q1 of our next fiscal year.”

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