In a world of constant sensory bombardment, cutting through the clutter with a visual narrative isn’t easy. And if your story starts at the toes and ends just above the knee, that narrative, for many, could make up less than half a sentence. However, Stuart Weitzman and its CMO, SUSAN DUFFY, have created a yarn that reads like an ongoing series over the last ten seasons of their iconic campaigns. We spoke with the novelist about the power of focus, doing more with less, and how less turned into more.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Susan, good to catch up and talk shop as you’ve been driving a strong vision for a while now. Can you share with me a little bit about the genesis of Stuart Weitzman’s ad campaigns?
When I joined the company, it was in a really good place. There was actually nothing to fix in terms of the product. I was brought in as more of an in-house artistic director and brand architect, someone to create a communication strategy. Stuart was a world-renowned shoemaker. He had an incredible wholesale business, but our goal was to create a next-generation brand and really drive the desire and love for it.
So how did that work? After you got acclimated, what was your first step?
Well, the first step was defining the DNA of the brand and coming up with the pillars that would set us apart in the marketplace. Frankly, to this day, five years later, we still stay authentic to that DNA, which is merging fashion and function. Stuart is very left brain/right brain. He is an incredible designer. He is a Wharton graduate. He has a very technical scientific mind, and there are very few designers that can engineer a shoe like he does. What he has done so superbly is to combine his extraordinary fit with glamorous comfort in the most fashionable silhouettes.
Then we sought to bring back our inherent sexiness. We believe that a woman’s sexiness is expressed from the inside out and the same applies to her shoes. Sexy doesn’t mean uncomfortable. Our styles are the first thing a woman puts on in the morning and the last thing she takes off at night. It’s about being comfortable and confident in your own shoes and in your skin.
Finally, we set about defining who the Stuart Weitzman woman was. When we looked at our creative, there were a few things that came through: our woman is confident, authentic, daring, independent, sexy in a kind of charming, glamorous way, and at ease in her own skin. These were all important elements in defining who we were, to determine where we wanted to go. Stuart Weitzman is a New York brand, with an ever-growing global presence. We pride ourselves on being a very democratic brand and by that I mean: we have something for everyone, whether it’s the 20-something fashionista or the professional woman. There is a style for every woman and every chapter of your life.
With that person in mind and that DNA, how did you transition to defining this aesthetic of the creative campaigns?
We took an extensive look at who our competition was and what they were doing over the years. When we embarked on this journey and partnered with Mario Testino for the first campaign, no one else at that time was playing with black and white as a visual vocabulary. We felt that was something we could own, and we set about to do that.
Mario isn’t necessarily the first in mind though when you think of black and white. How did that language come together?
Well, Mario Testino is a portrait photographer – and that was important in terms of our collaborations with him. When you look at our ads, the first thing we want you to do is to look into the beautiful eyes of the woman, and then fixate on her footwear. This is a portrait of a woman and her relationship with her shoes.
Footwear creative is traditionally a shoe and a face, if houses want to add personality, but you went with the entire person.
I think it is an interesting conundrum being a single category brand. I think this minimalist approach is an effective way of getting our message across.
What was the first reaction?
It was the fashion shot heard around the world. [Laughing] The campaign was met with tremendous applause and accolade from our partners around the world and it immediately helped to elevate the brand onto the international fashion stage.
And you had some talent in that campaign, as well as a broad range of talents afterward. Can you share how that evolved?
Natalia Vodianova was the face of the brand for our first campaign in Spring of 2012 and she was selected because, obviously, she’s a beautiful woman, but we also loved her heart and soul. When we evaluate any of our potential partners, we look at the woman as a total being. We want her to look approachable, like the girl next door. You want to be her friend, walk in her shoes. It’s also how Mario has photographed each one of the girls. An important aspect of our brand is the authenticity and approachability.
Well, you found yourself working with some of the greatest model talent of our times, from Kate to Gisele. What has that experience been like, and what have you taken away from it?
Each one of these fabulous women communicates something different about the brand, whether it was Kate Moss with her high-fashion sensibility or Gisele with her “Giselegance.” She’s the ultimate working mother, smart, sassy – just an incredible person. For Spring 2016, we entered the age of the social supermodels, and that opened a whole new universe for the brand, attracting and enticing a new generation to look at us as well.
You also expanded from a single person to a group.
We did, and you know what Kenneth, it’s always a challenge. How do you raise the bar any higher? How do you communicate in a different way? How do you break through that clutter of our always-on media world? When we were selecting the triumvirate – as we called Gigi, Joan and Lily – we challenged ourselves to think how we could do the campaign differently and create a ‘Wow!’ moment. The three fabulous women we selected turned out to be quite extraordinary. They were all friends, but they were at different stages in their lives. Lily Aldrige was married to a rock star and a mother. Joan Smalls was a high-fashion model, with magazine covers around the globe, and Gigi Hadid was the up-and-coming social superstar. The iconic image from the campaign was inspired by The Three Graces, the statue by Antonio Canova. Mario photographed the girls wearing nothing except for the Nearly Nude sandals. It was quite incredible!
We introduced the nudist sandal and photographed it on Kate Moss in 2014, and since then we have been quite successful in creating an iconic product and line extensions. Very few companies, particularly shoe companies, have what we call this ‘power of the item.’ That is, clients come into our stores and search on our sites for this product by name. They want The Nudist, the 50/50 boot, or the Highland.
What do you attribute that to?
Well, I think that frankly it’s the communication and marketing that really drives it. In 2012, when we were with Natalia, we decided to advertise the 50/50 boots, which was an almost 20-year-old classic within our line. Now, people might question why you would advertise such a product, but it worked incredibly well. It’s still one of our top-selling iconic styles because we realized the power of consistently communicating on this item.
In 2014, we launched the Nudist, which evolved into the Nearly Nude, and for Fall, the BunnyLove. We did the Lowland, which evolved into the Tieland and the Highland, an incredible category of boots with high heels. The team has successfully dictated and defined key styles by focusing all of the branding, PR and marketing strategy to help create these instant iconic bestsellers. I think a good example of this is the Nearly Nude campaign, which launched in mid-February and immediately became a top-seller – and during boot season.
You’ve accomplished strong branding in a short amount of time, and really leveraged print. So what is your take on the mediums of messaging?
Well, honestly, Kenneth, we’re very, very proud that we have elevated the brand and created not only an emotional attachment, but a desire for new product categories, which obviously translates to new revenue streams.
We are a little big brand. We don’t have deep pockets, so we are constantly challenged to deliver the most impactful programs leveraging every resource, and we try to stand out through a combination of high-impact pieces in print. I love four-page inserts and unique native advertising opportunities, but it’s really the combination of how we utilize all messaging mediums like social outreach, our celebrity outreach, events and philanthropy to deliver our message that has elevated us. The whole is really greater than the sum of the parts as it’s a combination of events, celebrity, the PR, the editorial, the social, and the advertising.
I consider myself the orchestra leader. We have incredible products and my job is to make them sing. We raise the bar high for ourselves and have an uncompromising desire to be the first in our field. Stuart is definitely king of boots, and when you look at the campaign for Fall, I think that comes through. We’re kicking it up a notch with a dynamic campaign but the focus remains on the product. For me, the success of the campaign is measured by how much sales it drives, how much engagement it drives, and how much traffic comes to the website after the campaign launches. Will women buy the boots? These are all the important things that we consider when we ideate the marketing campaign.
Ok, that’s going to be conversation fodder for more than a few CEOs. Susan, thank you for giving us some insight into the mind of a forward-thinking CMO, which I really appreciate.
Anytime, Kenneth. Thank you.