Jesse Stollak believes he spotted the future of marketing on the green expanse that is Harvard Yard.
Last fall, a viral video by then-juniors James Mathew and Ify White-Thorpe caught Stollak’s eye. The two students were campaigning for president and vice president of Harvard’s student council at the time. The video featured a rap song about how theirs is “the most inclusive campaign,” and a diverse cast of friends from an arts community that Mathew helped establish on campus. Beyond propelling them into office, the video also landed Mathew and White-Thorpe an unusual role in Converse’s latest effort to connect with young consumers.
On Friday, the shoe company announced a new marketing program, inspired in part by that energetic “James and Ify” campaign video.
Far from a traditional advertising campaign, the new program will instead fund creative ideas that align with Converse’s stated corporate priorities of environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and youth development. One goal, Stollak said, is to foster and reward creativity that shows a purpose or mission, much like what Stollak saw in that campaign video.
Among other things, Converse is investing $1 million into an accelerator program, called Converse All Star Captains, over the next two years. The money will be spent on quarterly stipends for 13 “captains,” starting with Mathew and White-Thorpe, as well as funding for their passion projects. These brand ambassadors will act as a sounding board for Converse, a direct way to plug into youth culture. And Converse will promote its captains and their work through social media and other digital channels.
“It will build this broader brand halo, and will put Converse back into the heart of this generation, which we believe will have an impact on this business,” Stollak said. “We think you have to align with the values of this generation, and this generation will choose you.”
Owned by Nike and best known for its popular Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers, Converse has been a part of youth fashion trends for decades, more so than the other numerous athletic shoe brands in the Boston area. Staying that way requires continued marketing — but not necessarily in the traditional sense. (Converse’s annual revenue has remained relatively flat for several years, near the $2 billion mark.)
Converse certainly isn’t alone among brands looking to bond with consumers through corporate activism; it’s become a trend for companies that want credibility in the sometimes tough-to-crack demographic of 18-to-25-year-olds. But by recruiting artistic, passionate creators in that age group, Converse is taking an unorthodox approach.
However, it’s not unprecedented. The shoe company did something similar with its Rubber Tracks program, launched in 2015 to provide support for budding musicians. Stollak said the Captains program is in part an extension of Rubber Tracks, and also enhances its effort to build a global network of young fans, dubbed “All Stars.” Converse has been widening this network for the past two years or so, and it will soon total nearly 3,500 people.
Converse will soon start accepting applications from this group for the Captains program, and will pick the other 11 Captains this fall.
Mathew and White-Thorpe brainstormed with Converse to come up with the program.
The video featuring their campaign platform spelled out in a rap song went viral in no small part because of its inclusive message. (White-Thorpe is Black, while Mathew is Indian-American.) The video apparently struck a chord with the Harvard student body: The two students won their races last fall for top seats in Harvard’s Undergraduate Council for a one-year term.
Stollak reached out after their video went viral. The two students at first didn’t know what to make of the outreach, but decided Converse’s efforts to attract the attention of younger consumers were genuine. This, they said, isn’t just a brand that is pushing shoes; it’s pushing progress.
“Converse is saying, ‘We’re not just here for you, we’re here with you,’” White-Thorpe said.
“I was almost confused by how loud a voice I had,” Mathew added. “They would just call a meeting to ask what Ify and I thought. … They really want to get to the core of what young people are thinking and what we want to see.”