Last week I wrote about the remarkable mission and rise of Warby Parker, and the post received a tremendous response.
People who didn’t know about WP were fascinated to learn that a) their product was affordable and stylish, and b) that the company has given away 500,000 pairs of glasses to the needy in 3 years.
Those who were already fans cheered loudly. Many people compared Warby Parker to Tom’s Shoes.
I hadn’t selected Tom’s to write about yet because I believed the story had been told often, and was so well known that it might not generate much excitement.
On Wednesday as I drove to work, I heard the tail end of a show covering issues Tom’s faced because of their charitable mission. I realized that there was a lot more to the story. So here it is.
The Beginning of Tom’s Shoes
The founder of Tom’s, Blake Mycoskie, is an interesting cat. A glimpse at his resume makes it is clear that Mycoskie was destined for success; not only did he work hard, early on he thought about how he could make the greatest impact.
While a student at Southern Methodist University, Mycoskie started a business called EZ Laundry that expanded to 4 colleges. After selling his share, he began an outdoor media company that he sold to Clear Channel.
He and his sister participated in the reality show Amazing Race (they didn’t win), where his travels on the show took him to Argentina and he encountered poor, shoe-less children.
Mycoskie wanted to do something big to help fix the problem, so he founded Tom’s Shoes, which he saw as a sustainable charitable force.
Tom’s took the traditional Argentine alpargata, that have been worn by Argentinian farmers for hundreds of years, and designed their own version of it.
In 2006 Toms began selling its first shoes, and their story was almost intermediately published in the LA Times. Other publications took notice and word spread; in their first 6 months, Toms sold 10,000 pairs of shoes.
The first free shoes were given away in October of the same year, and equaled the number sold.
One for One
The one for one model is straight forward and self explanatory; you buy a pair of shoes, and one is given away. Toms shoes has been called the pioneer of this model; whether they invented it is not as important as the attention they brought to it.
What One for One did for Toms was create contagious word of mouth marketing. Consumers feel ‘good’ about making a purchase, and the cool looking shoes also serve as a badge of giving honor, letting everyone in the world know that the wearer is indeed a charitable soul.
From 2006 and that first LA Times story until the present, Toms Shoes has had the advantage of the one thing self financed, independent companies need: FREE PRESS.
Articles in the NY Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur and countless other publications fuelled the company’s meteoric growth.
Social Media was the Perfect Tool
It is certainly serendipity that the founding of Toms and the rise of Social Media occurred simultaneously; the company was quick to recognize the impact social networks could have on its marketing.
Here you have a feel good story that people want to tell and share, and a savvy company that recognizes how to use the medium.
Toms Facebook Page is filled with stylish shots of products, images of the good One for One has done, and fan submitted images of people with the products they love.
Both company and fan posts generate a continual stream of likes, but interestingly little actual conversational engagement from Toms; perhaps when you become accustomed to constant validation by way of the LIKE, you feel that you don’t need to actually engage.
As I viewed the stream of Comments by Others, this appeared in a stream where a customer was complaining about shoe size and inadequate customer service:
You should know that when you buy a pair of Tom’s shoes they ship a pair to a developing country, which undermines the ecomony there and can cause local vendors to have to shut down. Most families in developing countries are large so that is a number of people who are no longer receiving support. I have lived in the deepest darkest depths of Africa (Sudan) and no one is going shoeless. You need to read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo. Tom’s does more harm than good.
The Backlash Against One for One
The above comment by an individual within a comment stream on their Facebook Page did not illicit a reaction from the busy social media team at Toms. The ever growing number of articles discussing the flaws in their One for One program has.
The brief clip I heard on NPR that morning brought me to tinyspark.org and a closer look at what the criticism is based on. Amy Costello, the Host and Senior Producer, produced a podcast outlining what she sees as a great problem rather than a great cause.
The primary and profound complaint is that Toms is not fixing the root of the problem, and in fact is creating issues in small local economies worldwide where there are shoe manufacturers and cobblers who earn their living, and employ people, producing shoes locally.
Costello highlights the work of Nisolo shoes, that turns the Tom’s model on its head.
Instead of giving shoes to ‘the poor,’ Nisolo instead sells high quality, handcrafted shoes from poverty stricken countries to the West.
Costello is not alone in her criticism – Fast Company also challenges the charitable model, where author Cheryl Davenport take aim squarely at the root of the problem:
First, the Toms buy-one-give-one model does not actually solve a social problem. Rather, the charitable act of donating a free pair of shoes serves as little more than a short-term fix in a system in need of long-term, multi-faceted economic development, health, sanitation, and education solutions.
Toms Shoes Reacts to the Criticism
Initially, back in 2012, Toms did respond to Amy Costello’s reporting, and questioned why she didn’t interview them directly. They also made a clear statement in reaction to Costello’s charges that the company was using its shoes as missionary products, stating that Toms was a secular company.
Toms had far more to deal with than the criticism of Amy Costello, and they apparently took heed. At the Global Clinton Initiative at the end of September, Toms announced that the company would begin manufacturing its ‘Giving Shoes’ in Haiti, employing 100 people and committing for 5 years. Critics welcomed the news as a first step into fixing the broken One for One model.
Costello gave them credit on her podcast, while cautioning that there will be tremendous issues building a business in such a poverty challenged country. She again cautioned against the ‘top down’ charitable model, saying that companies should ask ‘what are the root problems’ and create solutions that will have a lasting impact.
Thinking Hard About Charitable Models
It is difficult to get worked up and angry at a company that, on its face, is trying to do good.
Despite the criticisms launched against Blake Mycoskie for being a fame seeker and not thinking his mission through, his company was clearly not focused solely on making a profit. What the Toms story does is make us think hard about how charitable causes can impact a company’s reputation.
Last week I had the pleasure of writing a purely feel good post about Warby Parker; whether the company understood it or not when they created their own One for One concept, they were protected against the type of criticisms Toms is facing because their product is fundamentally beneficial to a person’s future.
Correcting someone’s vision makes them more productive and impacts their ability to earn more and therefore change their own life. In the impoverished countries where they are giving, they are not in danger of putting eyeglass manufacturers out of business.
And then I had a conversation about charitable good with the founder of a much smaller brand, League Collegiate Outfitters.
When discussing how they might grow their brand awareness by using Social Media to better communicate the incredible work they’ve done in regards to Social Responsibility, Drew Wolf immediately reacted with genuine concern. He needed me to understand that the work they have been doing quietly for years was NOT a marketing gimmick, but genuine and heartfelt.
That is the reason it works, and his comments stopped me in my tracks.
As a marketer, it is easy to get caught up in the feel good stories of cause marketing, and get excited about their ability to become social media word of mouth success stories.
But the Tom’s story and the mounting backlash against it should make companies that consider charitable donations as a marketing tactic stop and think hard both about their mission to do good, and the problems that may arise if they haven’t thought it through.
CLARIFICATION: Upon the publication of this post, Amy Costello herself stopped by the comment section and had the following correction:
I did indeed seek an interview with Blake Mycoskie for my Tiny Spark podcast but was told he was unavailable. I then asked for an interview with a representative from TOMS and was told that Blake was “the only spokesperson for TOMS”. I then sent TOMS a long list of questions in ADVANCE of posting my podcast, asking for responses, and received nothing in reply.
VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.