With Its Wall of Honor, Red Wing Is Exhibiting Worn-Out Boots and the ‘Epic Stories’ Behind Them

The shoe company was inspired by true tales from real customers

Courtesy of Red Wing

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.

Chris Csoka working at Ground Zero

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.)

A bare wall at Red Wing's flagship store will become the Wall of Honor
Courtesy of Red Wing

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.”

Dana, a self-described "tree man," wore these boots for 27 straight years.
Courtesy of Red Wing

As it turns out, Red Wing isn’t the only outfitter to unlock the emotional power of a pair of old boots. Last year, outdoor brand REI launched a campaign called Paul’s Boots. Inspired by the story of a real-life Paul, a man from Ipswich, Australia, who was felled by a heart ailment before he could realize his dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail, the effort features a film that follows several volunteer outdoorsmen who complete the trek in Paul’s memory—while carrying his boots.

Red Wing’s Wall of Honor contemplates a similar kind of reverential approach, though it also celebrates the irrepressible, tough-as-nails work ethic of hard-working Americans. It’s a message that resonates with people who buy Red Wing for work on an oil derrick as well as those who simply want to look like they work on one. And in the view of marketing and retail authority Bruce Winder, co-founder and partner of the Retail Advisors Network, Schneider deserves credit for getting this much mileage out of a bunch of footwear stories.

“This is a great marketing idea,” Winder said. Red Wing, he continued, is “letting customers speak to their brand’s quality and longevity themselves in a way that is more genuine than everyday online ratings or reviews or celebrity endorsements, which customers have become skeptical of. The wall demonstrates the brand connection to its core customer and reinforces Red Wing’s positioning as a trusted work companion that always has your back.”

As it turns out, one of the stories that inspired Schneider the most had nothing to do with the Wall of Honor campaign. It was one that the CMO spotted in a local newspaper. Tom McCarthy, a pipe fitter from St. Paul, Minn., was helping raise the 18,000-seat RiverCentre on the eve of his retirement. As a tribute to Red Wing, he submerged his boots in the wet cement of the floor at center ice. That happened in 1999, nearly two decades before Schneider got the idea for the Wall of Honor. But even though the story’s not his per se, the spirit’s the same.

“These stories … are so rich in their detail,” he said. “They’re so authentic to who we are.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.