A Lesson On Rebranding: 90-Year-Old Shoe Company Channels Gen-Y To Reinvent Itself

Paul Grangaard, CEO of shoe company Allen Edmonds, recalls a time when what is now fashionable was very much considered unthinkable.

"When I went to work for an investment bank in 1986, our boss said he would never hire anyone who would wear brown shoes to an interview," the 55-year-old told the Wall Street Journal.

Like most of today's trends, the style that Grangaard describes evolved from being considered distasteful to now being attractive. With time, Allen Edmonds has had to make a similar evolution of its own, a task which required a list of wholesale changes after the business had fallen on tough times.

The overwhelming majority of competitors were outperforming the Wisconsin-based shoemaker; however, those competitors were largely thriving on outsourcing their jobs. Indeed, while Allen Edmonds continued to manufacture around Lake Michigan, an incredibly large majority of consumers in the US purchased shoes that were made overseas (98 percent of those bought last year were not made in America).

Furthermore, with the shoe company's revenues falling steadily, Grangaard was forced to hop off the board of directors and into the chief seat to get his hands dirty and revive a company that simply was not keeping up with its industry.

“We had fallen by 25 percent in revenue,” Grangaard told Fast Company contributor Lydia Dishman. “I looked at what we weren’t doing as well and imagined how much better we could do if we improved things around here.”

To reshape the Allen Edmonds brand, Grangaard downsized staff by 8 percent, cut his own salary, restructured the hierarchy to incorporate more shared responsibilities and cut the expense base of the company.

All of those measures were at the executive level, though. When it came to their actual products, Allen Edmonds began manufacturing some of its styles overseas to keep retail prices down, while Grangaard brought back four of their most popular models and launched a line of styles more casual than what the company traditionally produced. Meanwhile, Allen Edmonds stores have moved beyond just shoes and now sell coats, jeans and other types of clothing.

All of these shifts combined to give Allen Edmonds a superficial lift, one that has dramatically changed the image of the company.

“We are a lifestyle brand, we lead with shoes," Grangaard told Dishman. "We want to do what Coach did through purses for women.”

These days, instead of talking deficits, Grangaard says Allen Edmonds is expecting $145 million in revenue for 2013 after cracking the $100 million mark in 2011, a first for the shoe company. This particular comeback story serves as more than just another reason to laud another big time executive; however, it provides a lesson in re-branding that can prove valuable for anyone in this day and age.

Even after 90 years of prospering as the "great American company" amongst retailers of formal footwear, Allen Edmonds now also appeals as a hipster favorite and go-to retailer for casual wear.

Consider this: what, are the possibilities for you to reshape your image into the perfect brand? It may sound like an overwhelming task, but the first step seems simple and it all begins with a straightforward question.

"How do you want to be perceived by the world? You should choose a unique specialty to promote that is not based on any other brands," author and Elite Daily contributor Dan Schawbel told the Wall Street Journal's Dennis Nishi. "...It's important to find your own niche that sets you apart from your peers." No matter whom you ask amongst those who are well versed in the matter, you're likely to get similar answers.

Want your company to shine under a certain light?

"Be proactive with your brand. You may need to reinvent yourself multiple times to keep up with shifting industry trends and changes to your career fortunes," Nishi says.

Want to promote yourself to potential employers after finding yourself in the job market again?

"You also need to be able to articulate and exude the authentic you — both with your words and your demeanor," PwC talent leader Mike Fenlon told Forbes. "Make sure you have stories that demonstrate what makes you exceptional. Those stories should also show the true you in a memorable and authentic way."

Whether you're at the head of a startup or stepping out into the world with your degree hot off the printing press, you're likely going to have to twist and tweak your personal brand to suit the industry you're trying to break into. As an entrepreneur, for example, this might mean changing a few policies to match clientele. For a writer, that might mean tailoring work to nail the one angle that goes unnoticed or untouched in the overall discussion of a relevant subject.

If there's any reason to believe that rebranding works, regardless of the situation, it's Allen Edmonds, the grand old company that now appeals to the new generation.