May 31, 2020 Larry Gulko

CEO Lounge: David Kahan

CEO, Birkenstock Americas

David Kahan in the CEO Lounge

“The biggest challenge is quite frankly being a 245 year-old heritage brand and at the same time being a ‘cool’ brand that is making the news.”
~ David Kahan, CEO, Birkenstock Americas

Birkenstock Logo
 You got your first glimpse of the footwear industry selling shoes in Macy’s. What fascinated you to work in the women’s shoe department, known for being perhaps the most chaotic department in the store?

DK: Footwear is an incredible business. There is no purchase that is more satisfying to a consumer. Especially in women’s. Its the only category where the consumer literally waits for the sales associate to emerge from the stock room with what she wants – and hopes, and even prays they have the size. No one ever has “buyers remorse” from a footwear purchase. And lets face it, you don’t have to lose a few pounds to look good in a shoe. People buy shoes when they want to celebrate and reward themselves and when they may be depressed and need a pick-me-up. And last I saw…no one is walking around barefoot. I was a pretty hard core sneaker guy before the industry really exploded in the 1980’s – in high school I used to sketch sneakers on all my notebooks. I had no idea there was an actual industry that existed, but it does seem pretty much destiny.

LG: You’re the steward of a 245 year-old brand. What’s the biggest challenge marketing a heritage brand vs. a newer cool brand making news?

DK: The biggest challenge is quite frankly being a 245 year-old heritage brand and at the same time being a ‘cool’ brand that is making the news. You have to insure no matter what, you never compromise the DNA of the brand and all you do amplifies the qualities that make you unique. For us it is authenticity, quality, true ‘function’, and our history that dates back to a small village in Germany.

LG: Birkenstock appeared to go quiet for years. How did you reignite the brand to drive the explosive growth its experiencing?

DK: Yes, for many years, Birkenstock would have waves where it would get popular, then fall back to its prior niche status. When the global management team took over and co-ceo’s Oliver Reichert and Marcus Bensberg began this shift, much needed to change. We took a old manufacturing company, and revolutionized this into a true global lifestyle brand. When you think like a brand, and act like a brand, you are far less determined by the cycles of fashion and instead you manifest your own destiny. Only true powerful brands with strong management have this ability and I believe we are now the best example across all consumer products categories. The idea of a brand revolution vs an evolution.

LG: What misperception about Birkenstock frustrates you the most?

DK: We are so over the media trying to categorize us as a “fashion trend” or use terms like “the ugly shoe trend” – we make one of the only true functional forms of footwear on the planet. We invented the term FOOTBED. It is truly a bed for your foot and after wearing it a bit, it molds to your unique orthopedic skeletal gait and provides a benefit that no one can duplicate. Fashion is fickle – function is not. We love the fact that many people enjoy styling our footwear with whatever outfits they think are fashionable. Birkenstock is the most simple accessory anyone can own – it quite literally goes with anything.

LG: Why do you refer to your customers as fans?

DK: We never use the word consumers. Would Bruce Springsteen who packs stadiums around the world ever refer to the 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden singing along and knowing every single lyric, as consumers? Of course not. When you create a brand, you have fans, and our fans are stark, raving, passionate brand missionaries. We love that many of our fans are Hollywood celebrities who share their love of our brand, and many are just regular people like you and me who have come to enjoy the benefits of our products and connect emotionally with our brand energy.

LG: Recently, Nike and other brands have decided to break away from selling on Amazon. You were the first footwear brand to do so – share with us your insight regarding this strategic decision.

DK: Its simple. We only share our brand with partners who share the values and energy of our brand with their consumers. This means, by and large, we choose to distribute in less transactional vehicles, and rather focus on the ones that best tell our brand story along with selling our products. This isn’t just In regards to Amazon, it is all points of distribution.

LG: Many celebrities are showing off their Birkenstocks at iconic events in Hollywood. What is your strategy to engage high profile individuals to wear your brand?

DK: We have no strategy of engagement. Quite frankly, most who wear our product are brand fans and some have become personal friends. They enjoy having a direct relationship with us. However, please know this – we do not gift celebrities, we do no product placement in movies or TV, and we have no Hollywood media/PR agency. What we do have is passionate fans who love our brand, some who just happen to be celebrities. They also purchase, same as anyone else, on our website and in retail stores. We opened two locations, one in Soho in NYC and one in Venice CA and frequently our customers will be recognized as a celebrity.

LG: Tell us one thing we don’t know about you.

DK: I am quite dedicated to my meditation practice. I do it every day and when I don’t I notice the difference.

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