Feature

Close-up: live issue - Dr Martens

The brand will want a good performance in the US and UK, Camilla Palmer reports. The fact that Dr Martens boots aren't walking off the shelves is clear for anyone to see - just look down at your average pavement.

What you will see are trainers, and the boom for wearing them has hit R Griggs, the British company which makes Dr Martens, very hard. Global sales have dwindled to the extent that the company reported a £24 million loss in 2002, the brand's flagship store in Covent Garden shut, production shifted to China and more than 1,000 employees lost their jobs.

But the director of marketing, Bobbie Parisi, is keen to stop the rot and has started a search for a new creative agency both in the US and UK, leading the hunt from Griggs' US sales and marketing company, Airwair, in Oregon.

Parisi's background is telling; she was previously Nike's global marketing director for its All Conditions Gear range and it is clearly no coincidence she has expertise in selling the products that are encroaching on Dr Martens' market. However, apart from confirming the need for a revamp, Parisi is giving little away about her ad plans.

Dr Martens' last foray in ads in the UK was in 2001 through Mustoes, which is not repitching for the account. It became the brand's first global campaign, followed by a new positioning in July 2002, dubbed "original since".

Although only a tiny percentage of overall sales are in the UK, it is crucial that the rebirth sought by Parisi happens here, according to Mustoes' business development director, Damian Horner. "It is important for the brand's image that it is strong in its home market. However, in commercial terms, it is more important to re-energise the brand in the US," he says.

Dr Martens has to retain its credibility and roots in the UK to become big again, according to a senior executive working on Nike, one of the brand's biggest rivals: "Consumers are sophisticated and they're not going to be fobbed off with the premise that a product is cool if it's clearly not."

He suggests a strategy designed to remind consumers of the utilitarian roots of the brand in a way that champions its style and place in the UK's fashion history books. "Dr Martens could become the John Smith's of shoes if it took the right route," he claims.

But reaching consumers through more effective marketing is only half the battle, Horner says. He argues that while Dr Martens has tried to bite back with new products and ranges, the company's traditional manufacturing process and haphazard distribution in the UK has also hampered its growth.

"The whole premise of the product used to be based around the sole. It is labour intensive and slow, and that means the company wasn't able to respond to trends as easily as its competitors," he says, saluting the decision to move manufacturing to China and the Far East and pointing to Dr Martens' new range of products. Sandals, a line of trainers, clothing and accessories were all developed.

But Dr Martens has a heritage to be proud of, an executive working on the Adidas account says: "Updating the product to click with consumers should be part and parcel of any revamp.

But it does need to communicate that, and the most effective way to get them to listen is to evaluate the core of the brand and tell a story about it which is compelling and truthful."