It's Amazing What You Can Learn From Your Students

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As a marketing professor, I am always keeping my eyes open for examples of strong marketing. At the same time, I try to think of ways to help my marketing degree students experience these examples for themselves rather than having me just tell them about it.

For the last several years, I’ve kept track of TOMS Shoes. Actually, one of my students first shared the story of this company with me. He was one of those students who cared both about business and doing good. His team did a presentation about TOMS’ dual focus of making a profit and giving back to the community. In case you don’t know TOMS story, here’s the elevator pitch: With every shoe you purchase, TOMS gives one to a child in need. As part of his Amazing Race experience, Blake Mycoskie (TOMS’ founder) discovered a lot of children without shoes. He set up his company to help change that.

There are many things from a marketing perspective that TOMS does right:

  • Product – the basic shoe is comfortable and interesting. They constantly change up the designs to keep customer interest. They work with designers to add extra cachet. They even have seasonal offerings. But, the basic shoe is great. Product also includes packaging, which again is a hit for TOMS. The box reminds you of the cause and TOMS story. Inside, there’s a shoe bag, a logo sticker and a letter from Blake.
  • Price – these are definitely not the cheapest shoes around. But, that’s not really the point is it? Instead, the price point is acceptable (basic shoes are $44 - $58) especially when you realize that you are really buying two pairs – one for you and one for another. TOMS does little discounting; the most frequent is free shipping.
  • Place – TOMS is primarily sold in their own online store. But, they can also be found online at Amazon and in select bricks & mortar stores including Nordstrom’s and independent specialty boutiques.
  • Promotion – this is where TOMS excels. Great website. Having received TOMS emails for about 2 years, great email marketing strategy. TOMS also does all of the social media – twitter, Facebook, Pinterest. This year, they’ve direct mailed one catalog (which I know got my mom to buy another pair after seeing all her choices). And, the blog is very engaging. TOMS doesn’t rank in organic search for shoes, but that’s a highly competitive category. The cause marketing initiative “One Day Without Shoes" is where TOMS’ efforts are unparalleled. One April Tuesday every year, One Day Without Shoes asks people all over the world to take off their shoes to see what those without experience every day. This initiative has its own website, highly linked to TOMS of course. The website itself has a lot to offer – a robust story; an event locator and ability to register your own event; a national challenge to get organizations to register their members with a Blake party for the winner; downloadable event materials including rally signs, street stencils, DIY shirts, pocket cards, stickers, banners, displays and toolkits; an iPhone event locator app; videos; a photowall; even a way to do it virtually via Sims and all of the social sharing integrations you could want.

So, this year I asked my undergraduates to participate in this event for extra credit. Although they thought it was a way to earn bonus points, I hoped they would experience the power of word-of-mouth marketing. Lucky for me, my class meets on Tuesday so they could come to class without their shoes. Naturally, I too went without shoes for the day – yep, those blue toenails are mine.

Afterwards, they have to reflect on the day and share their thoughts with me. Their reflections covered a couple of key themes:

  1. You become a champion of a cause and play a key role informing others:

    “Fortunately, right before my M450, while walking through the hallway between the library and the business building, a student stopped me and thanked me for participating, claiming she did not have the courage to do so. It made me feel amazing. It’s funny how one person can make that big of a difference.”

    “Also, I realized that very few people are aware of this issue. With many people unaware of TOMS or the event, I found enjoyment in explaining my slightly kooky appearance in the middle of the library. I felt like I was an insider with great information about a good movement/cause.”

    “I love being able to explain to people why I am walking around looking like a crazy person, it brings a spirit of humility upon me.”

    “One thing that I learned during my experience of “One Day Without Shoes” was how much awareness that simply one person can make by going barefoot. I never believed it until I did it on April 10. More and more people kept on asking me about why I wasn’t wearing shoes and just like the website had mentioned raising awareness can be achieved by drawing attention to certain things.”

    “It was cool how people would ask you the reasoning behind being barefoot, because I was able to spread the word about one day without shoes.”

  2. Without shoes, you spend more of the day looking down to try and protect your feet:

    “Before this experience, I didn’t realize how much I took shoes for granted. Every step I took was calculated and not one went without me looking down to see the next. I think it was a good experience to essentially walk a mile in someone else’s shoes... Only walking that mile barefoot. When I was walking barefoot outside, it was the thing on the top of my mind. Whereas when I have shoes on, I think about what I’m about to do next, what I have to do later that day, etc. I never think about the next step I’m going to take.”

    “Today, I was without shoes. I spent a great deal of my time looking down in order to make sure I didn't step on anything sharp or jagged. Walking without shoes also made me walk a little slower than normal.”

  3. Without shoes, your feet get dirty and they hurt:

    “At times it was painful and agonizing to think about how dirty my feet were getting.”

    “At the end of the day, my feet hurt in spots that don’t usually hurt!”

    “My feet became very dirty and they were starting to ache after awhile. I also realized that you use different muscles in your feet when you walk without shoes.”

  4. We take our shoes for granted, worrying about which ones to buy rather than being glad we have them:

    “Sometimes I spend so much time shopping for the 'perfect' shoe when in all actuality I should be grateful to have shoes period. It is important at times to step back and be thankful for the basic needs of life.”

    “We as Americans don’t realize how good we have it in our country. We take for granted the fact that the many people in the world do not have one pair of shoes while we all tend to have several pairs of shoes for different occasions.”