Comfort, collaboration and imaginative innovation at Crocs

Retail Gets Real episode 350: CMO Heidi Cooley on the strategies behind Crocs’ emergence as a pop culture powerhouse

This episode originally aired on Dec. 5, 2023.

Heidi Cooley
Heidi Cooley,
Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Crocs

Crocs might be one of the most iconic footwear brands — with one of the most iconic silhouettes in its famous clog — but its status as a pop favorite has been a work in progress. With partnerships ranging from Post Malone to Balenciaga to McDonald’s, the brand focuses on “authentic marketing tactics to create relevance for our kind of product with consumers all over the world,” Crocs Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Heidi Cooley says on this episode of Retail Gets Real.

“We are a delightfully democratic brand,” Cooley says, “so that informs the diversity that you see us bring to life from a partnership perspective.” Crocs listens to customer requests, she says, which has helped bring to life products as varied as “Lightning McQueen” clogs in adult sizes and Crocs Roblox.

The Crocs customer has changed over the years; Cooley says the company clusters segments based on psychographics rather than demographics. One group of customers are very loyal to Crocs: “They have joined Croc nation and they come back for the comfort,” she says. “They come back for the versatility.”

Another group is “very trend-driven. They come to Crocs because we are dropping partnerships. We’re dropping new silhouettes. We’re giving them new, interesting and innovative reasons to join our brand.”

Listen to the full episode to learn more about Cooley’s career journey, Crocs’ commitment to sustainability and its new take-back pilot program, and how the company celebrates self-expression and individuality.

Episode transcript, edited for clarity.

Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail’s most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I’m Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation, and on today’s episode, we’re talking to Heidi Cooley.

She’s the chief marketing officer for Crocs. She’s also one of the dynamic leaders on the List of People Shaping Retail’s Future 2024. We’ll going to talk to Heidi about how she got into retail, how Crocs connects with consumers everywhere, and the strategies she and her team used to make Crocs one of the most popular footwear brands on this planet, and maybe across the metaverse.

Heidi Cooley, welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Heidi Cooley: Bill, thanks so much for having me today. I’m really looking forward to the discussion.

Thorne: I am, too, and I know that there’s a lot of other people who are looking forward to the discussion as well. So, let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into retail and was there someone basically who inspired you?

Cooley: I have loved retail since I was at a very, very young age. I had the opportunity to live in Cairo, Egypt, when I was in middle school and I still remember when McDonald’s entered the market for the very first time. It was memorable to experience the globalization of great American brands, and since that moment, I knew I wanted to work in retail and in consumer goods.

I attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles from a university perspective and started at Abercrombie & Fitch folding clothes on a sales floor. Quickly moved into public relations because I loved the storytelling of great products and great brands. Spent 10 years at the Sports Authority, which at the time was the nation’s largest sporting goods retailer. And for the last seven years have had the incredible opportunity to be part of the Crocs brand.

Thorne: What was your first pair of Crocs? When did you get them? What color were they and how many do you have now?

Cooley: That is a very important question. I’ll start at the beginning. My first pair of Crocs were yellow. I had actually seen them on the streets of Los Angeles in a very high-end kind of trendy fashion boutique, but I bought them while I was on vacation in Wyoming because they were also being sold at an outdoor retailer. What’s unique is — that was back in 2007. I’ve since learned that that was about a year after the company IPO-ed and quickly accelerated to become a billion-dollar brand.

But what’s memorable about it are two things. One, you can ask consumers all over the world about their first pair of Crocs, and just about everyone remembers when they got them and what color they are. Which is really remarkable for a footwear brand, because not everyone remembers their first pair of ‘fill in the blank,’ right?

The second [thing] that’s interesting and still part of our strategy today is that we’re sold in high-end fashion boutiques and we’re also sold in outdoor retail locations. We are a delightfully democratic brand and very inclusive to invite the entire world to become a part of Croc nation. You can be walking down the street, walking in an airport all over the world. This is in Tokyo. This is in Shanghai. This is in Boulder, Colorado, and New York. And you see someone else walking in a pair of Crocs, and there is a wink and a nod that you both have. You make incredible connections with somebody you do not know by just recognizing that you both get the power of what we say is, ‘being comfortable in your own shoes,’ right? You look comfortable footwear, of course, but you’ve got this sense of self expression that Crocs can really help to enable.

Thorne: What do you tell people when you’re on a plane and they ask you what you do? Because if you tell them that you work for Crocs, then you’re into a conversation for probably the length of your flight. Do you just tell them you’re an accountant and leave it at that? I mean, honestly.

Cooley: Well, OK. I’m in marketing, right? So, I tell everyone. And then I ask if they’ve owned a pair. If they don’t, I sell them into a pair. I tell them all the reasons why they need to join our brand. I love that dialogue for sure.

Thorne: I’m sure. Who is the Crocs customer and how has that changed over the years?

Cooley: Yes, well, we say that we are a delightfully democratic brand and we mean it. It’s in our core values. It’s how we think about consumer segmentation. We’ve intentionally set out to be a brand for all. And that looks like kids getting their first pair to adults getting their third pair. It looks like trend-driven sportwear consumers to mainstream consumers. We believe that there’s a pair of Crocs for everyone.

Now, we have two macro consumer segments. We cluster our segments on psychographics, not demographics. Because again, we don’t define our fans by their demographics. But we do know that there are a few reasons to join and continue to engage with Crocs.

One is a consumer group that is very trend-driven. They come to Crocs because we are dropping partnerships. We’re dropping new silhouettes. We’re giving them new, interesting and innovative reasons to join our brand.

The second consumer is actually really loyal to Crocs. They have joined Croc nation and they come back for the comfort. They come back for the versatility. They are a part of Croc nation as well, but they’re joining us for different reasons.

Thorne: You mentioned innovation, so you drop a new style and it’s innovative. What are you innovating? I mean, I look at a Croc and I think, ‘That’s a Croc.’ How do you implement those innovations without changing what people have come to know as, and love, obviously, their Crocs.

Cooley: I’m going to take you on a journey for this one. First and foremost — because the last thing you said is really important — we are a 21-year-old brand with incredibly high awareness around the world. You can show our iconic silhouette in 80-plus countries and consumers recognize it as Crocs, similar with brands that we’ve mentioned and admired our entire career. So, when we think about the opportunity we had for the brand, it was less about driving awareness for our iconic silhouette. But we’ve really been focused on driving relevance. How do we get more consumers to think and consider this iconic silhouette for them? As we think about how we’re driving that relevance around the world, there’s a lot of different ways that we bring consumers into the brand from an entry point perspective.

And yes, partnerships play a really important role in that — and we can get into that in the future — but we really do set out to give consumers interesting reasons to try our iconic clog first. That is who we are. That’s how we define kind of self-expression. But there are a lot of other great products that we make. We see a lot of fans try our brands for the first time for sandals or sneaker iterations or kid sizes as well.

Thorne: Or sliders?

Cooley: Or sliders. Yes, you said you had, you have a colleague who loves the Croc slide.

Thorne: I guess I should have started with this question. Crocs. Where did that name come from?

Cooley: There are a few things. One: Innovation is core to how this brand was founded and how we have brought it to life ever since. Imaginative innovation is actually in our core values for the organization because when you go back to the onset of this … start of this product … to this company, the founders were quite innovative. It is ironic that we sell billions of dollars of shoes with holes in them, right? But they saw this need for a boat shoe that was anti-slip, that was easy to drain, easy to dry, easy to clean, and it was inspired by one of our favorite reptiles, the crocodile.

Thorne: Obviously. That is so cool. I love that. And to your point, it is quite amazing. There are products that rely on something maybe on the front of the shirt or the vest or something people in order for people to know, ‘Oh, well that is X brand.’ Crocs doesn’t. Is the name on there anywhere? I mean, you don’t have to put your name on the shoe for people to know exactly what it is.

Cooley: Yes, it’s an incredible luxury as a marketer, because to your point, the bottom of the shoe actually says Crocs. There’s a little — his name is Duke — there’s a little crocodile icon on the side rivet. But the most recognizable characteristic of our brand is that iconic silhouette. And it’s our role to make sure that the way in which we express the brand, and the feelings that you get when you choose to wear a pair of classics out of your closet, are really seamlessly integrated.

So, we tell brand stories that invite the world to come as you are, and we celebrate self-expression and individuality and being bold and expressive. And what’s incredible is that’s exactly what consumers feel when they look in a closet with a lot of shoe options and choose to put on a pair of Crocs in markets all over the world.

Thorne: So, you mentioned it, briefly, said we get back to it, so let’s get to it: The team that you run has been behind some of the most wide-ranging Crocs collaborations (say that 10 times: Crocs collaborations) including McDonald’s, Hidden Valley Ranch, Post Malone, and that’s just to name a few. What’s behind the partnership collaboration strategy, and who or what is next?

Cooley: Ooh, doesn’t everybody want to know? OK, so, what’s behind it is a few things. One, we are a delightfully democratic brand, so that informs the diversity that you see us bring to life from a partnership perspective. We work with Balenciaga to Post Malone to McDonald’s because we are engaging a broad group of consumers.

We actually also knew, at the onset of this transformation, that Crocs wasn’t a brand at the time. I’m going to quickly take you back to 2016 when the number three Google search trend for Crocs was ‘Crocs memes.’ Literally consumers looking to make Crocs a joke.

We knew that we couldn’t be a brand that stood up and said, ‘Hey, here’s all the great things Crocs is and why you should believe in us and where, what we can enable you from a consumer perspective.’ We knew we had to use really authentic marketing tactics to create relevance for our kind of product with consumers all over the world. So that started off as brand ambassadors. Influencers, celebrities were really part … an important part of our strategy early on and continue to be today and our collaboration partners fit in that framework.

It’s really about reaching new consumers with their audiences and their storytelling, and it’s about changing the perception that Crocs are not for me. Still today, it does not matter what social media posts you look at, one of the first five comments is, ‘I never thought I’d wear Crocs until you worked with …,’ fill in the blank.

It’s been a really important part of driving relevance culturally, and with our fans. It’s been a really important part of how we drive new customers to become part of Croc nation because once you’re in, you’re in, and you come back for another pair, and you come back from another collaboration, and you tag your friends on social media. But they’ve been crucial to the success of our brand and how we built momentum over the last six years. They’ve been an important part of our strategy since then.

Thorne: It’s such an extraordinary story to think about where you were, where you’ve been, and where you are today in terms of perception, in terms of how people look at the Crocs brand, the people wearing the shoes, the wide variety in terms of demographics, the global nature. It’s just, I think there’s a book in the making. I really, really do. Or is there one out there already?

Cooley: No, we’re still wishing for a Netflix docuseries. I don’t know who can help me with that.

Thorne: I think it’s time. So, you know, we talk about where we are and where we’re going. Digital marketing: Crocs has made a big push into the metaverse and Web3. How does this strategy build customer connections and what’s the feedback been from customers so far?

Cooley: Great question. I would say, core to the marketing strategy at Crocs is what we call a consumer-centric approach. It informs how we think about all the ways in which our brand shows up to engage with fans. And to what you just alluded to, we really do focus on showing up where our fans are spending their time.

When I think about how that consumer-centric approach has kind of evolved over the last seven years, you know, it started by being a brand that listened to our fans on social media. And we’ve got incredible stories about how fans asked us to send white classics to a graduating class or asked us to send their school colors to their championship volleyball team. And we as a brand listened to those requests, and we actually respond, which is what a lot of great brands don’t do on those platforms and with their fans each and every single day.

So, we already started to build this bustle of listening to our fans, and then responding, and that has informed some of our most impactful strategies to date. An example: Going back to partnerships quickly, we had a consumer in 2017 create a petition for Crocs to make adult-sized Lightning McQueen classics. And so, we told Colin that if he got 10,000 signatures, we’d make them. Colin got 30,000 signatures on this petition. And we did what we said we were going to do. We made adult-size Lightning McQueen classics. We’ve restocked them probably six times. We always believe we’re going to fulfill that demand. Still today, any social post we make, one of the top five comments is, when are you bringing back Lightning McQueen?

It’s actually that approach that has helped us create our metaverse strategy. Fans have asked for Crocs in their favorite gaming experiences, which is why you now see Crocs Roblox. You see Crocs in NBA 2K. You’re going to continue to see the brand in authentic ways where the consumer is spending their time.

We’ve also dabbled in Web3. We as a team constantly watch and monitor trends in the industry. We’re constantly talking about whatever the recent marketing innovation is, but we don’t often show up in those settings until we believe it’s right and authentic for our fans. So, yes, we’ve done NFTs, and we’ve done that in really powerful ways with product drops for really important communities in that space. But we do it in authentic ways, and we believe that we can be one of the most accessible brands in Web3.

Thorne: I mean, everybody’s talking about it, so keep up the good work. Now, you know, it might surprise some people, but to be a successful person in this business today, or a company in this business today, you have to have some form of sustainability focus, some initiatives. Tell us about the new retail take-back pilot program and the new bio-based Croslite material.

Cooley: I would say, purpose is a really important part of our foundation at Crocs. Our vision is that everyone should be comfortable in their own shoes. So, therefore, we believe that our purpose is to actively work to create a more comfortable world, right? If we want people to be comfortable in our footwear, we need to help to create more comfortable situations for fans.

We think about that across three pillars. Sustainability and environment. As you’ve mentioned, we really work toward inclusivity efforts and community efforts. Environmental sustainability is actually a place where we feel like we can differentiate ourselves from our competition. Starting with the bio-based Croslite. Crocs actually announced this a few years back, where we said we were going to start to infuse bio-based resin in our standard Croslite material. Now, our Croslite material is basically the foam that creates our iconic clog and the majority of the footwear, the molded footwear that we bring to fans all over the world.

Instead of asking to consumers to choose between a sustainable version of our clog, and a less sustainable version of our clog — which is what a lot of great brands do, right? You have to choose between those two options — we said, ‘We’re not going to make the fan choose. We’re going to give them our iconic clog and all the colors and the style and the creativity that they know and love for our brand, and we’re just going to make it more sustainable over time.’ So, for the last few years, we have been working to increase the percentage of bio-based resin in all of our clogs and all of our molded footwear. And you will see us really start to tell that message to consumers in the next coming year.

We really believe that doing the right thing is the right thing for Crocs. And so, we made the choice to become more sustainable as a brand and as an icon versus having to force our fans to have to make that trade off.

When I think about the retail take-back program — kind of the next evolution of this is — to continue to make more sustainable product, we have to start to work toward a circularity ambition, which a lot of great brands are talking about, a lot of great organizations are working towards, but it’s hard to do. Because to create circularity, you have to take back your product and you have to turn it into other meaningful things. Crocs has just recently piloted a retail take-back program where we’re inviting fans to bring back loved Crocs that we will either give to organizations who need footwear or we will upcycle and turn into new Crocs for them in the future.

Thorne: That’s fantastic. Congratulations. This is a great initiative. I just, I just have a hard time believing that anybody would part with their Crocs.

Cooley: Yes, I mean, if that hasn’t turned it on TikTok, I don’t know what has, right? Fans that have worn up bottoms, that have had their dogs to them and they still wear them. The great news is the longevity of our product, actually, it’s another point of differentiation in the sustainability journey, meaning that they last longer, right? And so that’s an important part of our attribute.

But we do believe that once they get finally worn out to the bottom, we can turn them into something else and we’re really also excited to be working with Souls for Souls, who’s going to help us get gently loved shoes on the feet of new fans.

Thorne: You know, Buddy from Souls to Souls joins you as one of the People Shaping Retail’s Future. So, congratulations.  And you — now that I’ve mentioned it — were named NRF Foundation’s … one of the people on the List of People Shaping Retail’s Future. What does that honor mean to you personally and professionally?

Cooley: It is an incredible honor to be recognized on behalf of the Crocs organization. When you think about what makes great brands successful, we all know it’s the people inside of those brands. And I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with an incredibly talented leadership team that teaches me each and every single day.

We’re highly collaborative. We’re all passionate about the consumer and about our long-range plan and accelerating this brand forward. And then I have the incredible opportunity to work with the most talented marketing organization I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with around the world, and they have this innate ability to love the brand so much that they can take these consumer insights and ideas and motivations and they can create something far beyond what our fans have ever imagined. And that is Crocs’ secret sauce. And it would not be possible without the people here at this brand today.

Thorne: The best piece of career advice that you’ve ever received, Heidi.

Cooley: I’ll say three things. The first is that it doesn’t matter what role you’re in. It doesn’t matter what organization you’re in, if you’re curious and creative and agile, and you have a small sense of passion to out-hustle others, you can achieve far beyond what you ever imagined you could.

I would say the best advice I ever received was from a mentor who knew that I was looking to grow as a leader. And one of the words of advice she gave me back when I was right out of college was to write notes to your future self. It’s so easy today to think about all of the things you want your manager to do today, or your CMO, how you want them to behave, or what a great CEO looks like. And it’s so much easier to have that perspective when you’re looking up. And she was like, then all of a sudden, you get to the top and you forget all of that perspective because your, your objectives have changed. And so, I have written notes to myself for almost 20 years, and I still look back at them today of what I wanted from a manager versus what I wanted from myself as a director or as a CMO. And I still take those notes for what I want to be in the future.

And then the last word of advice I always give to my team — which I could not have learned it faster than I learned it at Sports Authority — which was: We all work really hard to transform brands and you create great projects. Like, you’re so excited when you roll out new brand framework or a great marketing campaign, or you successfully introduce a product, or you have the most fun in the world working on a global collaboration drop that has basically broken the internet. And yet, when you look back three years from now, you actually don’t remember the projects anymore. You forget the work. But you never forget who you did that work with. You never forget who was in the war room, who was celebrating your successes, who was pushing you to the next thing. And so, the life goal is to be that leader that remembers that it’s first and foremost about the team.

Thorne: That’s absolutely fantastic. I love the notes. That’s your book, Heidi. That is your book. I’m very excited about reading that book. That’s unbelievable. And to do that at such a young age and to continue to do it is really phenomenal. What excites you most about the future of retail?

Cooley: I love the pace that retail is now innovating at. Growing up in retail, in a brick and primarily brick-and-mortar environment, like there were very clear ways of doing business, and I’m forever grateful that that is my foundation. But yet, when we look forward, the pace that we can create meaningful experiences for fans has never moved faster.

And what’s exciting for me as a marketer is that those things should not be scary as much as they are enablers of continuing to enhance how we authentically create meaningful experiences with our fans. So that looks like technology innovation, that looks like marketing innovation, that looks like consumer experience innovation around the world, and the pace at which that’s happening should be exciting. All of us in retail.

Thorne: It’s one of the most evolutionary, innovative, driven industries in the world, and if you wake up one day and you’re bored, you need to find something else to do because you’re not doing it right.

Cooley: You’re right. We’re definitely not bored here at Crocs.

Thorne: I can believe that. Heidi Cooley. It has been an honor. It has been a pleasure and it’s been a real joy talking with you. Thank you for joining us today on Retail Gets Real.

Cooley: Thank you so much for having me.

Thorne: And thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at I’m Bill Thorne. This is Retail Gets Real. Thanks again for listening. Until next time.


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