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Silk Purse out of a Sow’s Ear? How Wolverine World Wide Took Excess Inventory and Turned It into a Brand Name[1]

By Denise Harrison, Executive Vice President & COO

Strategic Planning Expert

As the US ramped up to participate in World War II, it found there was a shortage of leather for footwear for the armed forces.  In order to meet the demand for tanned leather,the government issued a challenge to Wolverine World Wide: “Can you develop a cost-effective way to tan pigskin?” Wolverine’s chairman Victor Krause rose to the challenge and developed the process that is still used today. 

What happened? Good news/Bad news 

  • Good news:  during the war the demand for footwear for the armed forces took off and so did Wolverine’s business
  • Bad news:  when the war ended Wolverine was left with lots and lots of tanned pigskin sitting in its warehouses 

What next? 

The company needed to find a new outlet for its tanned pigskin – what could this be used for?  (No, army boots had not become fashionable.)  By the end of the war America had changed.  Prior to the war people mainly lived in the city (urban) or on the farm (rural).  After the war a new living area emerged, a sort of a cross between the two: suburbia.  In the suburban neighborhoods, you were not packed tightly next to your neighbors with little or no greenery around.  Instead you had a house, a car and land.  With the land came lawns – but what does one wear when cutting the lawn?   Initially, men simply wore old wingtips.  When they bought a new pair of shoes,the old pair became the “weekend” pair.  But were these shoes really comfortable when performing the weekend chores?  What about women?  Women wore either heels or canvas sneakers. 

Birth of the Hush Puppies Brand

Krause saw that the population moving to suburbia would need a different type of footwear – the “casual shoe”.  He used his durable, waterproof pigskin and attached a crepe sole and, voilà – the casual shoe.– The Hush Puppies brand had arrived to meet this unmet demand for casual shoes. 

Where are Hush Puppies today? 

Have you forgotten the friendly Bassett hound that used to be part of your annual school shoe shopping expedition?  Well Hush Puppies are alive and well, with many more styles and state of the art comfort.  At a recent seminar, a recent attendee was wearing coral colored sandals (Hush Puppies) – these are not your grammar school Hush Puppies!  Now Hush Puppies is a global brand – nearly 20 million pairs sold worldwide. 

Lessons Learned 

When market demand changes, successful companies develop creative ways to adapt to change. Wolverine World Wide anticipated the need for the casual shoe when the population started moving away from the city and into the suburbs.  Along with this move, the workweek started to decrease and families had more leisure time.  The casual shoe fit right into these trends.  The development of the casual shoe niche was just the first step in developing niches in the footwear market.  During this time, who would have thought that you needed a different sneaker for walking, running and tennis? As a population becomes more affluent, markets expand into multiple niches. This is important, as emerging countries increase their disposable income, new markets will continue to appear. 

During your strategic plan you should:

  • Identify emerging trends, not just for your product/service, but overall trends as well
  • Identify how these trends might impact your current business
  • Identify how these trends might generate new opportunities that leverage your strengths

Who knows?  Maybe you too can “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. 

Additional information regarding innovation can be found by reading: Innovation: Where to Look for It.

Please visit our website (www.cssp.com) or give us a call if you have additional questions regarding assessing trends in your strategic planning process.

[1] “Hush Puppies America’s Greatest Brands”, American Brand Council, 2003

Denise Harrison is Executive Vice President and COO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  She can be reached at  harrison@cssp.com

© Copyright 2011 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.