Converse CEO on Building the Brand of the Future

By Lilly Milman |  November 9, 2020

Converse All Stars are a brand so ubiquitous in popular culture, they seem to skirt boundaries that other sneaker and apparel brands tend to uphold. They’re not a luxury brand, like Kanye West’s Yeezys, but every celebrity seems to have a pair. They’re not a bargain brand either, and yet 60 percent of Americans currently own or have owned a pair of the shoes, according to Hal Peterson’s book on Chucks. The famously simple Chuck Taylors are donned by everyone from Kylie Jenner to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to everyday college students and kids.

This was one of the big drivers for Uzzell to join the company, which was acquired by Nike in 2003.

“Every one of us, myself included, has amazing stories of wearing my first pair of Converse, or my kids wearing their Converse,” Uzzell said. “I was just excited. … I just walked into a brand with such rich history, with such great bones, with such great consumer connection. The real challenge for me was [figuring out]… Where do we spend our time and effort? And how do we take what’s been great in the past and make it great in the future?” 

With great history comes great responsibility, he explained. Uzzell joined Converse in January 2019, and one of his first goals was figuring out which existing areas the brand needed to improve on. As one of the first ever companies to make shoes made for basketball, Converse needed to innovate and create new, better products for the sport, he said. Besides returning to the basketball court, his other goals for the brand included: accelerating digital business, investing and continuing to drive foundational growth in China, and continuing to invest in the brand’s home market, North America.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic did impact business, Uzzell said he and his team were prepared in many ways due to their investment in the digital shopping experience prior to the pandemic.  

Uzzell discussed how they are making this experience more frictionless, using their brand and their relationship with customers as a way to elevate social causes like getting the vote out, and more during a keynote session at InnoLead’s Impact conference. Scott Kirsner, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of InnoLead, moderated the conversation.

The Impacts of COVID-19 Abroad

Because Converse operates internationally, the company was actually impacted by COVID-19 long before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the viral outbreak a worldwide pandemic on March 11, 2020. Uzzell remembered the realization that “there was no playbook” for operating during a pandemic.  

“A small group of us were actually in Shanghai and several cities in China through January 20 — four days before COVID began to be a global discussion, not in the US, but actually in Asia,” he said. “We were — somewhere in late January, early February — with my Asia business team now doing…a business discussion [almost every three days], because their marketplace was closing, [then] opening. … There’s no one that trained us [on] how do you operate during a pandemic?” 

Listening was key while Uzzell was back in Boston, working with a roughly 12-hour time difference between himself and his colleagues in Asia. “One of our longer term employees said to me…‘We’ve been through a lot in the last hundred years. We’re not going to know the answers to this, but we need to do a couple things.'” 

First steps included putting the team first, by focusing on safety and creating flexibility for employees. After precautions were put in place, leadership shifted gears towards managing the marketplace: “Let demand pull us where we need to go because we can’t predict tomorrow. Let’s selectively focus on our strategic areas,” Uzzell said.  

Other COVID-related decisions included investing in community-based solutions; for example, the company donated PPE to Boston-area hospitals.

Starting with the Customer 

Despite the fact that they’re worn by people of all ages, in many ways, Converse is a youth-driven brand. And that isn’t accidental. The company calls its target consumer “the game changer,” and it taps into customer needs with initiatives like the All Stars program. As part of the All Stars program, Converse works with about 3,000 people across the world, spread out over 27 global cities — from Los Angeles to Lima to London — who are “influencers in their own community.” This community, which Uzzell described as “the intersection of purpose, culture, sport, and lifestyle,” is given opportunities to co-create with the company and shape its digital and social media presence.

Uzzell also called the people who work in Converse’s Design Innovation Group “trend watchers” and consumers in their own right, with their fingers on the pulse of culture and lifestyle trends. A few examples of recent fashion trends the company has capitalized on include: athleisure or wearing athletic clothes as everyday clothing (popularized by brands like Lululemon) with its basketball and skateboarding shoes and styles; the eco-friendly movement with its brand Converse Renew, sustainable shoes made from recyclables; and gender-neutral clothing with its completely genderless apparel line called Shapes. 

Driving Culture Inside and Outside the Company

According to Uzzell, as a brand that’s obsessed with youth culture and progressive ideas, Converse has a responsibility to respond to social unrest and social justice movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. And that begins on the inside, with a culture audit, Uzzell explained.

“Before we start acting on the outside, we need to be focused on what’s going on inside the building. Because we say to ourselves that our brand is inclusive, our brand stands for so much to people around the world… We did a quick audit to match up, are we living those same values every day? Where we’re not, we need to get really focused on it,” he said. “We still have work to do. That’s everything from increasing representation to making sure that we’re driving the most inclusive workforce that makes sure that people have a voice… That we bring that same vigor [that we drive towards product and innovation] as we think about driving the right culture in our building. And we’re doing that every day.” 

Converse and Air Jordan — both subsidiaries of Nike — are working with the parent company to invest in black creatives and black agencies and collaborates, he said. Internally, Uzzell said, Converse leadership is always asking: “How can we be the brand of the future now?” 

“It’s a journey. We’re making progress… I think people would be very excited about where we are. But we know there’s no finish line, we have a long way to go to where we want to get to.”