Kizik CMO on Growing a Challenger Brand: ‘It’s Us Against the World’

Kizik CMO Alex McArthur is putting the brand's product innovation at the center of marketing storytelling.

Direct-to-consumer brands previously dominated the headlines for the hockey-stick growth curves they achieved due to their emphasis on ecommerce innovation. But in the current climate, with growth completely stalled for some of these brands, companies like Kizik are focused on the fundamentals: building relevant and engaging stories around unique products.  

The Kizik brand was developed by Mike Pratt to make a necessary product (sneakers) easier for everyone. At the core of its sneaker designs is patented technology from its innovation division, HandsFree Labs, which allows people to step into their shoes without untying their laces. After all, in the words of the brand’s website: “Who likes tying their shoes, anyway?”

“In the footwear industry, it’s always been about materials and colorways and there hasn’t been much substantial innovation in terms of a functional benefit,” said Alex McArthur, CMO of Kizik in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “With our 170+ patents, we are focused on creating something new in footwear. I’ve been a part of a lot of different brands, and when you find that kind of perfect situation where you’ve got unique intellectual property, an excited team and you’ve found an engine that works, it’s really hard to replace that.”

McArthur described Pratt as “an inventor always looking to solve problems,” and McArthur is putting that ambition and passion for product innovation at the center of the brand’s marketing strategy and omnichannel story.

“The coolest thing about being in marketing is your connection to the customer, but we have to communicate [that connection] along with the product,” McArthur said. “Mike’s passion was built around the idea that there’s a better way to do things. That’s what drives our innovation team and our product team. Our innovation team is constantly working on new innovations without the boundaries of having to deliver current products, and they’re always thinking about new ways to make the wearer [experience] better and more convenient and more comfortable. Then our product team is taking that technology and adding design and style to that.”

McArthur shared how he’s tapping into the power of product, brand and community to fuel his marketing approach, especially as Kizik aims to realize its growth vision.

On going to market as a challenger brand: Kizik’s proprietary step-in technology is the brand’s big differentiator, but it isn’t a feature consumers go into the shopping experience looking for. While on the surface this is a challenge, it has become a big opportunity for McArthur to invest in creating (and collecting) content that allows this technology to shine.

“We’ve done a lot of surveys and we’ve captured a lot of data — and what drives footwear sales is fashion and comfort,” he said. “We’ve pushed hard on something (technology) that isn’t in the top three of people’s decision-making in footwear. It’s not a priority for them but it has created intrigue, and it has allowed us to be a disrupter and pave our own path. Although it’s not a priority [for consumers], it has created that thought process of ‘I can buy a regular old shoe, or I can buy a Kizik.’ It’s us versus everything else, Kizik versus the world, so that’s the main learning we’ve leaned into. Whether it’s content we create or UGC, knowing that to [achieve] the aspirations we have, we also need to strengthen our fashion and comfort.”

On the benefits (and challenges) of wholesale: Earlier this year, Kizik onboarded Gretchen Weimer as its new Chief Merchandising Officer, and the company is using her connections and wholesale prowess to build this critical area of the business. The brand is currently in Nordstrom stores and is eager to scale with the retailer and beyond.

“As much as we want to talk about ecommerce momentum, the majority of shoe sales happen in stores,” McArthur said. “I can show a demonstration to illustrate why hands-free shoes are so much better, but people try them on in stores. Nordstrom does such a good job with their salespeople, educating consumers and letting them experiment and try things on, so it’s the perfect place for us.”

However, in an environment where every brand is represented in a uniform space, it can be difficult to communicate your core value propositions, especially if someone has to try them to believe them.

“Showing why we are different is massively impactful, so being in a store where every table looks fairly similar is a challenge for us,” McArthur added. “During our initial tests, we did a unique pop-up experience where we had video demonstrations and a kiosk that was very attention grabbing. So hopefully, if we’re able to scale, we can continue to provide those unique experiences.”

On using branded stores to close the knowledge gap: Kizik opened its first physical store this past May with help from MG2/The Lionesque Group. The store features a 38-foot glass storefront that touts a “larger-than-life” digital tile screen showcasing branded content about its product innovation and signature step-in moments.

Being able to combine technology, visual storytelling and passionate (and knowledgeable) store associates is a powerful thing. That’s why Kizik is “aggressively moving forward” with branded brick-and-mortar experiences, according to McArthur.

“The try-on experience for shoes has been the same forever, so we’ve done it a little differently,” he explained. “When customers walk in the door, associates ask if they’ve tried Kiziks before, and before they even get a style, we give them a step-in moment. Whatever shoe is available in their size, we let them step in, and that’s what creates this new ‘a-ha’ moment, and then we go to style. In footwear, conversion is 10% to 15%, but in our store we’re seeing 20% to 25%. That has given us faith and belief that we should scale faster than maybe we initially had planned.”

On balancing brand and performance marketing: This is an ongoing discussion in the world of marketing, and McArthur is an active participant. After all, he helped shape marketing and ramp up revenue growth for Purple, one of the leaders in the DTC mattress category. Now, as part of Kizik, he’s building a marketing and messaging strategy for a brand that has thousands of competitors in the footwear space. That’s why he believes growth lies in balancing both brand and performance marketing, especially in the current climate.

“Every marketer comes from one of those two camps,” he said. “My background is more on the digital side, but I evolved and tried to learn more on the brand side and get mentors that could help get me stronger on that side. But you can’t pick one or the other. The secret sauce is brand and performance. And if you don’t have that knowledge on both sides of that you’re going to eventually fail. I just see too many people get stuck on the cost of acquisition on Facebook, but if you have a good story and differentiated products, you can hold on to what’s working for you but build strengths elsewhere.”

On marketing to a broad audience: Everybody needs shoes, but does everybody need hands-free, slip-on shoes? Kizik has a broad product assortment for men, women and kids and, while the brand doesn’t market to customers by demographic, McArthur and his team love speaking to one core audience: people on the go.

“Our best customers are people that are on the go, people that are accomplishing things,” he said. “It’s kind of great in the post-COVID world where people have gotten into new routines, traveling, getting out and doing things. The 35-year-old woman, she’s actually our best customer, because she buys a pair for herself, she sometimes buys a pair for a child if she has one. And then she’s the most thoughtful customer for people that need our shoes. She often recommends our product to those who could benefit from them.”

On the power of being a values-based brand: Kizik Cares is a program that allows the brand to partner with different organizations like the Autism Awareness Campaign, the Parkinson’s Foundation and others. By collaborating with so many different organizations, Kizik has been able to connect with different consumers and, in turn, understand different use cases and benefits — some of which the team has never even thought of.

“I see so many brands attached to one thing, and I love that, but this model is great for our brand because we can touch so many people’s lives and we don’t want to limit ourselves to one partnership,” McArthur said. “It could feel meaningless if you’re a brand connected to too many things, but in this case, it feels so natural and organic, and we’ve continued to broaden our brand out that way.”