Amazon customers who search for Birkenstocks may find shoes from third-party sellers, but they won’t find any results from Birkenstock itself. That has been the case since 2016 even though Amazon was one of Birkenstock’s largest wholesale distributors with “dramatic” growth.
David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock Americas, who spoke at the Code Commerce event in New York this week, said the decision to pull products from Amazon was an “awakening of where we want the brand to be” after Birkenstock chose partners and points of distribution that were not consistent with the brand itself.
First and foremost on the list of reasons why is the brand’s desire to provide an emotional experience lest it become merely transactional.
“To me, it goes against every mandate we have of good brand management and connecting with consumers—giving them an experience we believe as brand fans they should have,” Kahan said. “It’s not just purchase and go—it’s about a true brand experience.”
This extends beyond Amazon to include “any retail partner we feel was not representing the emotional connection of the experience of purchasing our products,” he added.
However, in Amazon’s case, Birkenstock was also turned off by the proliferation of unauthorized sellers in the Amazon Marketplace, the possibility for counterfeit items and the brand’s inability to validate products from sellers it doesn’t know. It’s also because Amazon’s race-to-the-bottom philosophy in price and free-one-day-shipping mandate don’t align with Birkenstock’s values either. Birkenstocks are, however, sold on Zappos, which is owned by Amazon.
“We are brand stewards. Brand management is an art … Unfortunately, right now the market is so dynamic, Amazon might be the most visible, but it’s become a martial art, and, if you’re managing a brand, you better be Bruce Lee. That’s how you have to think about this.”
Kahan likened buying low-price Birkenstocks on Amazon.com to walking into luxury goods store Hermes and asking for a discount, noting brand management includes protecting a product made by skilled labor that is sold at a fair price.
Sales at Birkenstock’s own stores are also helping prove to retail partners like Nordstrom that Birkenstock can do more than just sandals. While he was speaking about other types of shoes in this context, Kahan also talked about Birkenstock’s plans in markets like skincare.
The leap may not be as crazy as it first sounds thanks to Birkenstock’s famous footbed, which is made from molded cork.
“Cork is one of most sustainable products on the face of the earth. Aside from the wine industry, we are the largest user of cork,” Kahan said. “We found a naturally occurring chemical in cork has incredible regenerative qualities for skin. If you cut a cork tree, the tree will regenerate itself.”
Then he added: “Great brands, like great bands, take you places you might not have known you want to go to,” and drew a parallel to the Beatles, who followed “two-minute pop songs” with the conceptual album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which he called a seminal moment in rock and roll history.
Although we’ll have to wait and see if cork skincare becomes the Sgt. Pepper of the beauty industry, the 245-year-old footwear brand is unique given its legacy and customers Kahan called “passionate, stark raving missionaries.”
That includes actress Frances McDormand, who made headlines when she paired a Valentino dress with custom-made Birkenstocks at the 2019 Oscars.
“The product brings happiness and satisfaction, but it’s not just the product; it’s the energy that product brings to the universe,” Kahan said. “People don’t have buyer’s remorse when they walk out of a store with a pair of Birkenstocks.”
Lisa Lacy is a reporter for Adweek’s brand desk, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon. She has covered marketing and technology for more than a decade for publications like TechCrunch, CMO.com, VentureBeat, the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, ClickZ, Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Journal. She has a master's in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's in English from the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.