Since its introduction in 1964, the Birkenstock sandal with its cork footbed and leather straps was considered sensible, but ultimately unfashionable footwear only donned by square family fathers, hospital personnel and anti-consumption hippies. When, in 2012, the tide turned, a hype erupted around the chunky shoe with its comfortable footbed. Since then, Birkenstock is found in all walks of life, in trendy city districts as well as on international catwalks. The latest highlight of a 245-year company history – but what are the foundations of Birkenstock’s recent success?
When Johann Adam Birkenstock started his shoemaking business in 1774, his full focus was already on health-promoting footbeds. These have not only evolved over generations but have also been supplemented by books and lectures on the topic of well-being for the feet. Even the word “footbed” was coined by Birkenstock. The third generation finally presented the sandal developed by Carl Birkenstock, which first became popular with health workers in the 1970s, then the hippie and eco-movement and finally family households. Known for its consistently anti-fashion, purely functional style, Birkenstock flourished in an unassuming niche of the footwear market.
From change to breakthrough
While Birkenstock never went through an existential crisis, the company fell into stagnation in the 90s. The managing family couldn’t agree on a strategy for their company, while serious arguments with the workforce started damaging their reputation. In 2012, Birkenstock unexpectedly stepped into the fashion scene limelight. Phoeby Philo, then designer of the luxury label Celine, caused a sensation with her “Furkenstocks” and made the timelessly dated sandals a presentable “ugly fashion“ statement. A year later, Alexander and Christian Birkenstock initially took over the shares of their third brother Stephan, then retired from the management of their family company, handing it over to two “external” leaders for the first time. Thanks to Markus Bensberg, who has been working for Birkenstock for more than 25 years, as well as the former sports channel manager Oliver Reichert, Birkenstock is growing – and innovating – like never before, and the number of mainly Germany-based employees has doubled.
We took a closer look at the four most important factors behind Birkenstock’s success.
Product: unmistakable quality
Even when Birkenstock sandals were considered hopelessly unfashionable, consumers agreed that they stood for unmatched comfort. They are anatomically shaped, mainly made from natural materials and last for many years due to the high quality of materials and workmanship. They had a strong enough selling point to be successful over 230 years.
A product design that has stayed almost unchanged for decades also makes Birkenstock instantly recognizable. Meanwhile, the company is rigorously intervening against counterfeiters, and even against distributors who do not do enough against the fake Birkenstocks, such as Amazon. As a consequence, it also heavily invested in distribution, with their own highstreet stores and an online shop available in 20 countries.
Leadership: seasoned experience and new perspectives
Should we keep relying on old virtues and a proven product? Or rather open ourselves to innovation and other markets? Until a few years ago, the managing Birkenstock family could agree on the strategic direction their company should take. Then eventually, in 2013, they found common ground in the decision to pass on the management of their family business for the good of the company.
Their decision to employ two trusted CEOs, consisting of the Birkenstock veteran Markus Bensberg and the former sports channel manager Oliver Reichert, proved to be the right combination of tradition and new impulses. Bensberg and Reichert radically restructured and simplified the corporate structures that had grown over six generations, started improving the working conditions – and launched a series of product innovations. As opposed to in the past, Birkenstock was able to benefit from the recurring trends towards comfort and sustainability.
Brand: staying consistently credible
Public debates about climate change, sustainability and ecological balance, but also the changing attitude of women towards fashion, meet the core values of the Birkenstock brand. As opposed to companies that have to integrate these trends retrospectively and less convincingly into their brand in order to profit from them, well-being, sustainability and good quality have always been at the heart of the Birkenstock brand. By staying consistent, Birkenstock can now credibly offer a vegan version of their shoes or a (cork-based), upmarket skin care product, without betraying the brand’s core. Another benefit for Birkenstock is the growing number of women who no longer want to follow fashion’s high heels rules at the expense of their feet. A trend that Birkenstock has reaped the benefit of with numerous unusual sandal designs that don’t compromise on the comfort of the footbed.
Innovation: growing around a strong core
While, according to co-managing director Reichert, 55% of Birkenstock sandals sold are still the classics such as the Madrid, Arizona and Giza models from the 1970s, the variety of available Birkenstock shoes or licenced products such as Papillo has broadened a lot in recent years. The company also has opened up to fashion trends, offering sandals in trend colors and patterns, special design lines with strictly selected partners (Valentino, Rick Owens) or famous brand ambassadors (eg Frances McDormand, Heidi Klum). Now, even closed shoes and boots are available.
At the core of every item, however, remains the familiar Birkenstock product based on a cork footbed and natural latex. Materials that stay central while product innovations continue to move away from the original shoe only universe. For example, a Birkenstock cosmetics line made with cork oak essences which is available in the US and Asia. Mattresses and even office furniture are also being considered, because the successful Birkenstock management duo clearly sees Birkenstock at home with the extensive world of ergonomics and health – just like it was 245 years ago …
Learning from Birkenstock: MARMIND® Top Tips
Focus on the product – a good, high quality product finds its market, even without being trendy.
Stay true to your own values – wait for trends to come around again rather than run after them.
Innovate around the core of your brand – to make sure your new products remain credible.
This article is based on the following resources.