Like any marketing chief for a major brand, Dave Schneider gets a lot of feedback from customers. But shortly after taking his job as CMO at the venerable Red Wing shoe company three years ago, Schneider noticed that many of those customers had more than just feedback to offer—they had remarkable stories about their boots.
There was Dylan Murphy, a lineman whose Red Wing boot saved his foot from amputation after a 12,600-pound wire reel broke off a crane and fell on him. There was Leon Moi-Thuk-Shung, a laborer who immigrated to the U.S. and worked punishing hours just to save for a pair of Red Wings.
And then there was construction worker Chris Csoka, who was assigned to clean up at ground zero after 9/11. Csoka’s Red Wing 2292s kept him from being electrocuted during an accident on the pile, allowing him to rescue a co-worker felled from smoke inhalation.
The stories blew Schneider away. “The amount of fervor and love and regard consumers had for this brand was something I’d never experienced in 25 years of working in marketing,” he said.
And then he had a thought: “How can I use these consumers who are already ambassadors and let them tell our stories?”
His answer: a new initiative called the Wall of Honor, which Red Wing quietly kicked off a few weeks ago. With a creative assist from Chicago social media agency Social Deviant, Red Wing is inviting customers to submit the “epic stories” behind their boots via a dedicated page on its web site. Over a six-month period, Schneider’s team will select the most dramatic and poignant ones to be part of a physical wall Red Wing is building at its flagship store on Main Street in Red Wing, Minn.
Described as “a shrine to the stories and boots of the men and women who keep America working,” the Wall of Honor will feature the actual boots (most of them beat-up relics from the field), along with a digital kiosk where visitors can learn the stories that go with them. Red Wing will also create a virtual version of the wall that will live on its homepage.
Since opening its submissions feature a few weeks ago, Red Wing has collected about 140 stories. Schneider plans to keep that channel open, because he wants “the best of the best” for his wall, he said. Red Wing employees will help select the most affecting stories, and then Schneider will approach their authors with the request that they donate their boots. (Those who do will, of course, be offered a new pair in return.)
Fortunately for the CMO, Red Wing has been making heavy-duty leather boots by hand for 112 years, so there’s no shortage of good material out there. To date, customers have written in to explain how multiple generations of their families have worn Red Wing boots and how their boots got them through dangerous conditions on oil rigs, high-tension lines and construction sites. A customer named Dana, for example, wrote in to say that a single pair of Red Wing boots carried him through 27 years as a logger.
A few customers have written in with stories about how a hardworking husband or father wore Red Wings for his entire career and recently died, yet the family has saved (and sometimes even worn) them as a tribute.
But there are implicit challenges when it comes to dealing with highly emotional content from real people. One of Schneider’s objectives is to proceed with caution and respect—in effect, to supervise a marketing initiative that feels authentic but not exploitative of those volunteering the anecdotes.
“I’m [being] very careful,” he said, to make sure the Wall of Honor does not come off as “some promotional, shilly thing. This isn’t ‘win a free trip to Jamaica!’ This is meant to be the real deal.”