Marketing and Meaning: How TOMS Is Inspiring a Movement

A sensibly chic take on the fiber and jute peasant footwear made in Catalonia since the 14th century – and popularized by designers in the forties and eighties – I like to think of TOMS Shoes as the little espadrille that could:

It could be the most popular shoe second to Uggs for American teenage girls (and fashion crossover dudes). The basic black TOM is now accepted as part of the uniform at schools nationwide in sun, rain, sleet or snow. Who knew canvas was year-round? The choices keep growing, from sparkly sequin and high wedgie editions to earthy vegan and even a new wedding collection.

It could be the most ingenious idea to date for a company giving back on a one-for-one basis to help barefoot populations risking cuts and sores, infections and disease from exposure. On April 5, TOMs raises awareness with its One Day Without Shoes, advertised in a celeb splashed video featuring uplifting images of shoeless throngs across the nation getting into the act.

And it could be catching on big-time as other shoe and apparel marketing execs look for sexy giving campaigns that attract younger generations seeking trends and causes. Ralph Lauren co-branded Rugby TOMS donating a matched pair with every pair sold; Element Skateboards introduced limited edition TOMS+Element shoes with a One for One skateboard benefiting the Indigo Skate Camp in Durban South Africa.

The TOMS movement began in 2006 when Blake Mycoskie was traveling in Argentina and discovered too many poor children were going without shoes. He started his company and returned to Argentina later that year armed with 10,000 pairs of shoes made available by TOM customers through the program. To date, more than one million pairs of new shoes have been issued to children thorough Giving Partners around the world.

Was the idea unique? Well, in 2005, a year before the trip to Argentina and following the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia, Soles4Soles was born based on the concept of giving without receiving. Wayne Elsey saw the need and spurred on shoe makers to donate a quarter million of their shoes to devastated locations. A year later, another million were shipped to the gulf coast following Katrina. So in 2006, Elsey made it official and founded his non profit.

Shoes2Share sprung from a couple’s adoption of children from Haiti. Described as a grassroots ministry, its humble beginnings have involved distributing suitcases of shoes to relieve the plight of children and families in orphanages, shelters and rehabilitation and feeding programs. In addition to the Caribbean effort, the charity is now targeting children of fallen soldiers, police officers and firefighters.

More on the scale of the one-for-one platform, Payless ShoeSource has introduced the Good Shoe Project, partnering with World Vision to peddle a knock-off of the TOMS canvas boater, called theAirwalk Hope Shoe, for $19.99. For every pair sold, Payless will send a pair to children in Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Guatemala. Pitched to customers as the “buy one, give one” deal, they offer not only hope to barefoot victims but to consumers who want to do their part to give without footing the $54-$80 bill for a pair of TOMS.

Eventually, TOMS range may widen as well to make giving opportunities more abundant, reaching kids on U.S. turf who want to get on the bandwagon . Perhaps then, the little espadrille that could will really be too cool for school!

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.