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Olapic x Timberland: Digital Transformation

Originally published in Response, the magazine for media, technology, & commerce. November Cover Story: Giant Steps

“How Timberland has evolved as a marketer has to do with the evolution of consumers and where they are receiving our message,” says Frank Hwang, senior manager, digital marketing and paid media for Stratham, N.H.-based Timberland, the well-known manufacturer and marketer of outdoor clothing, apparel, and footwear. “I’ve been here six years — the average Timberland employee has been here more than 10 — and during my time, the idea of the consumer journey and funnel is something that started in our marketing organization but has been adopted across the entire business.”

With a history that dates back nearly 100 years in New England, the company introduced The Original Yellow Boot in 1973 with the name Timberland. The boot became so popular that, by 1978, the company — which previously was known as the Abington Shoe Co. — renamed itself The Timberland Co.

As the company expanded its product lines throughout the 1980s and 1990s — clothing, accessories, and more — it also gained notice as a popular brand among diverse groups: from blue-collar workers to hip-hop culture. For much of the past two decades, Timberland — which is now owned by VF Corp. — has been on the cutting edge of marketing and pop culture.

That’s why it’s no surprise that Timberland is also on the cutting edge of today’s consumer-centric, performance-based marketing world. “Online and offline marketing are the tactics we might choose to engage consumers,” says Mike Isabella, Timberland’s consumer engagement director. “The bigger shift was simply putting the consumer at the center of all decisions. Where do they want to shop? What do they expect? How do they use mobile? These types of questions are guiding every decision we make, from how we develop creative — mobile first — to the experience of shopping in our stores.”

Jim Davey, the company’s vice president of marketing, agrees with Hwang and Isabella, adding, “Today, marketers are tasked with creating impactful and disruptive campaigns that build awareness, engage consumers, and drive sales. And they need to do all this in an age where consumers have unparalleled access to brands across multiple touchpoints. Our responsibility is to be consistent at every touchpoint, to show up as one brand and provide the consumer the right message at the right time, wherever they are.”

While Timberland is using a mix of online and offline performance-based marketing to reach its customers, one recent campaign with New York-based Olapic — an agency that specializes in maximizing a brand’s earned, owned, and influencer content — stands out as a great example of the power of such consumer-centric marketing concepts.

Combining Talents and Vision

Timberland’s history is one of creativity and service to its customers’ needs and desires. When Nathan Swartz — a Russian immigrant — began his shoe-making career in Boston in 1928, the Abington Shoe Co. was already 10 years old. Twenty-four years later, he bought half of Abington and, by 1955 he owned the entire business and brought his two sons into the company.

After moving operations to New Hampshire in 1969, the company’s aforementioned big break came with the introduction of its Yellow Boot. By 1978, not only was the company renamed The Timberland Co., but it also was adding casual and boat shoes to its product line.

In the 1980s, the popularity of Timberland’s boots continued to expand, as college students across New England made the Yellow Boot a must wear, not only due to the region’s chilly winters, but also due to its fashionability. That success eventually made its way to college campuses nationwide.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Timberland added new products — backpacks, watches, kids’ footwear, and more — while also gaining a foothold in pop culture, as hip-hop artists like DMX, Mobb Deep, and Nas made the Yellow Boot even more popular. In 2011, Timberland was bought by VF Corp. — which also owns brands such as Vans, The North Face, Lee, Reef, Nautica, and Wrangler — for approximately $2 billion.

It’s no shock that the trio of Davey, Isabella, and Hwang brings an expansive background of marketing expertise to the table of a company that’s remained so nimble despite its success.

Davey joined the company in 2009 after a nine-year stint at Nickelodeon and Viacom Consumer Products, working on product plans for properties including SpongeBob SquarePantsDora the ExplorerStar TrekSouth Park, and more. He also spent time with marketers Polaroid and LEGO.

Isabella spent more than 10 years at Urban Outfitters before joining Timberland four years ago. “I was digital from day one,” he says. “Well, almost day one. I spent two years taking phone orders for Anthropologie while in college. The minute ‘email customer service’ became a thing, I quickly found myself on that team. Like working the floor in retail, working in customer service gives you incredible perspective. You understand exactly what consumers expect of you and your brand, and you have the opportunity and the responsibility to share that feedback through the business.”

After his customer service years, Isabella says, “I worked in everything digital for Urban Outfitters. Launching programs such as search, display, and social — it was great to be a part of these programs from the early days through maturation. By the time I moved on, we had built a killer team and were officially ‘interactive marketing.’”

Isabella learned a key lesson during that time helping build Urban Outfitters’ digital business — one that he carries with him today. “The biggest lesson is simple: collect data and apply it,” Isabella says. “Retail habits are changing so quickly, the types of media options are evolving rapidly, and the expectation of retailers and brands is that you have to do it all — but you don’t. You can test lots of things, sure. But ultimately, the data will tell you what’s working, what’s most important, and give you focus.”

Hwang’s background is even more diverse. “It was a true mix of agency and client-side work,” he says. “When I was on the agency side, I was working with larger consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketers. That’s where I really cut my teeth.”

He spent time with EMI Strategic Marketing, Digitas, and Pitney Bowes. “It was at Digitas where I began working heavily on digital and early social media,” Hwang says. “I got a peek under the hood of how large scale companies do business across channels — and how it fits together.”

Just prior to joining Timberland in 2011, Hwang served as the global and North American marketing director for Cannondale Bicycle. “It was very much performance and technology driven,” he says. “But also a more traditional marketing experience — integrating global brand campaigns with regional executions.”

While he was there, Cannondale was bought by Canadian public company Dorel Industries. “That transition helped me understand brand portfolio management — working as one brand as part of a larger group,” Hwang says. “That helps today at Timberland, where our consumers see us as a brand with a long heritage and a great product line, but we find value in working with our counterparts across brands and products.”

Managing a ‘Global Presence’

Partnership and communication is crucial in any marketing organization, but when working on a diverse set of campaigns to reach an evolving consumer, it becomes even more crucial.

“Consumers do not represent ‘one and done’ sales, and using ‘last click’ as the attribution measurement is over,” Hwang says. “It’s a multi-touch process. The consumer has more control and preference in what they see, when they see it, and when and where they react to it.”

He adds, “The digital and mobile pieces are critical. Consumers are moving there — from both a marketing and purchase perspective. We always remind everyone that, though the direction is skewing that way, we still need real people doing real things to create and distribute that marketing content — all the way to our brick-and-mortar locations and partners. Store associates and customer service are part of a great marketing effort. At the same time, we spent much of 2015-16 building out an experiential marketing component with our public relations team. The goal — as always — is connecting with people and driving traffic.”

Isabella’s focus remains on Timberland’s digital efforts and he calls out three key issues that he and his team face in launching — and maintaining — a campaign. “Choices, waste, and mobile,” he says.

By way of explanation, Isabella continues, “Choices: there are so many ways to connect and engage consumers, and that means you need resources, constant education, and a steady flow of data that is constantly analyzed, applied, and optimized … repeat. Second, media waste: because of the prevalence of digital, we’re now open to ad viewability concerns, ad blocking, and more. We’re constantly evaluating the role of traditional display and its value. Finally, mobile: it has changed everything we do. As it continues to grow, we need to always evaluate its evolving role in the shopping experience, its direct and indirect relationship with purchase, and continue to break through on the smallest screens in a person’s life.”

Davey says, though, that video remains crucial to Timberland’s efforts, whether online or off. He thinks the prevalence of online video has even added to its importance.

“Video is a key centerpiece of our media mix, and we leverage the content across virtually all of our properties — YouTube, social, digital, out-of-home, in-store, etc.,” he says. “In today’s social media-driven world, we are challenged with optimizing our message literally in seconds to connect with a consumer scrolling through their feed. Consumers have rightly set the bar high and are ever more discerning; they expect to be entertained as they are educated. Video is critical to telling our story in a way that will captivate our target audience. In the end, it’s about getting them to ‘stop the scroll’ and pay attention to the brand and its message.”

Hwang learned a key lesson in 2014 in gaining that attention when the company re-launched its Timberland Boot Co. product line, which he calls “the pinnacle of Timberland craftsmanship, featuring the most premium materials.”

He says, “Through a new look and feel for the marketing, we were successful in communicating to our consumers why they should invest in this more fashion-forward iteration of Timberland. The learning from the launch is that amazing products and strong marketing need a global presence to be impactful — where to buy can be as important as what to buy.”

Global presence requires holistic planning, and that — Davey says — is where Timberland’s top agency and vendor partners shine. “All of our partners — from the creative agency to the media agency to the performance marketing agency — operate under one single brief. They frequently collaborate throughout the process to ensure the campaign has legs across all media touchpoints. Consumers deserve a seamless experience on their shopping journey, and having a like-minded, consumer-first approach enables us to produce the strongest content and messaging for each campaign across platforms.”

They Love Their Boots

One particular partner that’s provided huge success for Timberland is Olapic, with its work on a 2016 social media/user-generated content campaign for the Yellow Boot.

“Every campaign has moments to celebrate and opportunities to learn,” Hwang says. “In the case of this Yellow Boot campaign, it reminded us of the true power of consumers, their passion for our brand, and their role in its evolution. It’s something I think about every day.”

The campaign began with a simple idea, Hwang contends. “We have this iconic product, the Yellow Boot,” he says. “Everyone has their own story about it. Its brand awareness is global, it sells during all four seasons to men, women, kids, etc. How can we tell all of these stories across the product line and across generations, as well? People see the Yellow Boot as many different things. Let’s pull those together.”

Calling user-generated content — on social media outlets like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and others, as well as in offline spaces — “ubiquitous,” Hwang says the idea of turning Timberland’s customers into “marketers” just made sense. So, two years ago, he set out on finding a partner to create a campaign as Timberland was refreshing its platform as an e-commerce retailer.

“We were evaluating possible partners across the board — direct-to-consumer shops, digital teams … who works? We viewed user-generated content as something we needed to treat with extra trust. It works like a review or a rating, so we knew we needed to go with a partner that has the right industry insight and expertise.”

Why Olapic? “What sets Olapic apart is collaboration and communication,” Hwang says. “It’s a partnership. They brought the campaign to life. Often, when you tell your agency, ‘We have a great idea and you need to deliver it in eight weeks,’ most are not happy. But Olapic, together with our teams, delivered and we were able to capitalize.”

The campaign began as a pure social media play, as users flocked to show their Yellow Boots in action. “People love putting up their pictures and hashtagging Timberland or Yellow Boot,” Hwang says. “We’re talking celebrities, influencers, kids, moms, dads — they created this content.”

But what started digitally eventually drove a full 360-degree campaign for Timberland under the tagline “We Built It, You Made It.” “The success of the social campaign — and the great images of the Yellow Boot — became a rallying call internally,” Hwang says. “Once the idea for a full campaign based on our customers’ love for our No. 1 product came to life, the speed to market was just six-to-eight weeks. That’s super fast for such a large corporation, but the strength of the user-generated content was so strong, everyone got behind it.”

Davey adds, “Our user-generated Yellow Boot campaign is a great example of how Timberland delivered a consistent message and authentic content, in the right amount — whether the touchpoint was in a store, on social, at an event, or online — to help drive awareness, interest, and ultimately sales of our iconic product line.”

The campaign also fits within what Isabella calls Timberland’s focus on providing “a seamless experience for shoppers, from the moment they hear about Timberland, through purchase and beyond.”

He says, “We are heavily focused on the entire shopping funnel — if you still believe in the old upside-down triangle style of funnel. Yes, the current funnel more closely resembles spaghetti on a wall, but the function is the same. This focus has removed some redundant marketing across channels and made for a clear — and more effective — message for consumers. This was done through internal partnership, and the introduction of new tech such as a Data Management Platform and an advanced analytics and attribution partner.”

Like most marketers though, most of Timberland’s current campaigns are “always on, 24/7/365,” Hwang says. “And they’re all performance-based: paid search, retargeting, paid social, and more.”

Timberland is focusing on a trio of current campaigns: one for its SensorFlex collection; one with core partner Foot Locker featuring hip-hop legend Nas; and one directed at younger consumers for its Flyroam sneaker/boot collection.

“The SensorFlex line has been nurtured for three-plus years and has some momentum around a new tech platform,” Hwang says. “The lines consumers cross through different types of marketing overlap. We’ve been working with influencers in the dance space — talent who has a real connection to Timberland. The campaign is coming to life via traditional media, digital, and social engagement — out-of-home, billboards, rich media, video content, in-store promotion, etc.”

The second campaign with Foot Locker and Nas for its 2017 Legends Club collection has gotten a lot of positive response from consumers and media alike. “It’s about relevancy,” Hwang says. “We’re doing a whole series of product drops with Foot Locker. And Nas is a great influencer and spokesperson for the surrounding content series, which tells his life story through animated comic book features. We’re taking it out across media outlets — digital, in-store, out-of-home. With the popularity of 90s style and culture, it creates a hook to engage the consumer.”

The third campaign, for the Flyroam line, is “purely digital and social media,” Hwang says. “The target is an age 18-24 male. We’ve built a custom content series, and are integrating with and Viceland TV shows.”

Frank Hwang
Senior Manager, Digital Marketing and Paid Media, Timberland, Stratham, N.H.

Resides: Rye, N.H.

Family: Wife and two children

Hobbies: Surfing, snowboarding, hiking, cycling

Education: B.A, biology and environmental studies, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine; M.B.A., marketing, Boston College Carroll School of Management, Boston

Defining Moments: “No. 1, deciding it was time to shift gears and move closer to extended family and the ocean, versus traveling around the world to various professional cycling races for work. Second, teaching a Hollywood star how to Snapchat during a photo shoot.”


Mike Isabella
Director, Consumer Engagement, Timberland, Stratham, N.H.

Hometown: Philadelphia

Family: Wife and two children

Hobbies: A self-described “Halloween enthusiast”

Education: B.S, sociology, Drexel University, Philadelphia

Defining Moments: “Professionally, there have been lots of small moments, wins, etc., but the most fulfilling are when members of my teams — past and present — succeed.
Personally, when I was in first grade we took a class trip to the zoo. We were visiting a monkey enclosure with a big railing and sign that said ‘Don’t Step Beyond Here.’ Its purpose was clear: get any closer and a monkey will attack you. Naturally, I climbed under the railing and a monkey reached through the fence and hit me on the head. This is all true — and the lesson was clear: never underestimate the length of a monkey’s arm.”