From Art Basel to Roblox: How Clarks Follows in the Footsteps of Customer Muses

An Interview with Tara McRae, Chief Marketing and Digital Officer of Clarks

Tara McRae loves people who love Clarks. Lucky for her, the fandom (or, if you prefer, the “Stan-dom”) is as strong as ever, and their reach is vast; from Jamaica to New York, Miami — and even the geometric streets of Roblox. (Even Future Commerce’s very own Brian Lange falls into this group.)

It should come as no surprise. With more than 200 years of history, C. & J. Clark has successfully maintained relevance — even as new trends, commerce channels, and countercultures have emerged. In fact, it is Clarks’ ability to embrace all three that has helped the brand remain such a steady player in the footwear industry. 

“You're not around for 200 years without being culturally relevant,” McRae explained. “And what's really interesting is that all of these subcultures have made the brand what it is.”

As Chief Marketing and Digital Officer, this presents a unique challenge, and opportunity, for McRae. To tap into these subcultures and understand her customer Muses on a deeper level; and to find the most meaningful and intentional ways to bring the brand closer to them — no matter where they are. 

McRae shares how an integrated approach to innovation has helped her and her team activate brand fandom in the real world and in virtual worlds alike — and how they’ve managed to remain true to the Clarks heritage every step of the way. It is clear, based on McRae’s giddiness over Brian’s brand love, that she lives for those moments of connection. 


Tara McRae: Brian, I love, love, love that you are such a huge fan. You have a deep passion for it. And word on the street is you're a Desert Boot guy.

Brian Lange: I am a Desert Boot guy. I've been through at least three or four pairs of Desert Boots, and I think I've got two pairs at home right now.

Tara: Excellent. We'll get you some Wallabees, so you can also be a Wallabee guy. 

Brian: I've come so close to buying them. Every time I'm like, "Can I pull these off?"

Tara: We'll get you there. You can pull them off for sure.

Brian: I've always wanted to be a Wallabee guy and I guess I am. As a total stan, I'm geeking out, so I would love to start by asking you about the way you have been incorporating your customer into the central identity of Clarks — especially with some of the recent moves you've been making.

Tara: For a brand that's been around for nearly 200 years, we're an extremely diverse brand and we serve a very diverse audience. So for us, that can get scattered if we're not consumer-centric. We need to have very clear consumer Muses. We need to know who we're going after and how we reach them. 

That’s why, over the past few years, we've done an insane amount of research on the consumer: market sizing and market intelligence — and for the first time that I've been at the brand, I can say we’ve truly become consumer-centric. And the consumer absolutely has a voice in [the decisions we make]. We have many passionate consumers like yourself; they're very vocal and we listen to them. 

Brian: Brands have to contend with the power and the voice consumers have now. They have to truly hear and respond to these collective voices. It's this Foucaultian sort of power dynamic. The discourse is what drives that. It sounds to me like you’re wide open to fostering, learning from, and being a part of the discourse taking place between the brand and your customers.

Tara: Absolutely. When I first started in marketing, it was a one-way dialogue. You built creative campaigns using compelling storytelling and you pushed it out. You bought a media plan and then you pushed it out to the consumer. If items sold, great. 

Now you get instant, group-based feedback; and it’s loud. I love that because you can optimize throughout the journey and the consumer can have such a voice in it — that’s what makes it so exciting. We've used this feedback in a powerful way; to help us look at things differently and create new things. 

We also use feedback to uncover new trends. For example, we started including a second pair of laces in our shoes. We tied them in there in case people wanted to swap out the laces. The next thing we knew, we saw all over social media that people started wearing them hanging from the shoe as a style element. It was this cool trend, so we leaned into it.

Brian: You didn't even plan for that.

Tara: No, absolutely not. And I think what's amazing about our brand is it lends itself to be created and customized by the consumer. They make it their own, which is exciting for us.

Brian: Products are a canvas now, and it’s brands like Clarks that truly understand that. It’s very often these generational brands that have become cultural brands, because not only have they endured every market cycle, and every trend that's ever existed, but they're usually not the trend-heavy "it" thing. It's usually a product that is beloved, but people don’t usually associate the brand as a “creator of culture.” But that’s exactly what you are. How do you bring that history, that context, into your role?

Tara: I think you nailed the Clarks brand. You're not around for 200 years without being culturally relevant. And what's really interesting is that all of these subcultures have made the brand what it is. 

If you think about an icon product like the Wallabee and how that started to bubble up, especially in the 80s and 90s through hip-hop culture in New York, that all stemmed from Jamaica. The brand initially bubbled up there and then major artists were traveling there and brought that culture back to New York. 

We didn't say, "Hey, let's take the Wallabee down to Jamaica. Let's go target hip-hop and rap culture and stylize within streetwear." They adopted it and they made that the shoe. And I think that's what's amazing about our brand: we do pull more than we push within these communities. 

As Chief Marketing and Digital Officer, I oversee everything brand marketing, and creative —  globally and all the way through our digital commerce. In this day and age, it is one cycle; rather than creating [a campaign] on one side with marketing and then lobbing it over the fence to the commercial team, we pull the whole strategy, end-to-end, to support the customer journey.

Brian: And because the customer doesn't think of anything like a journey, they're the main character. They're just living their life.

Tara: They are.

Brian: You also have an unfair advantage because you have a significant physical retail presence, right? So when you think about this customer journey, how does the connection you have with the customer in physical retail differ from that of your digital customer? How are you contending with the fact that the digital customer could be anywhere, doing anything at any time, and you can’t control their environment and context in the way that you might be able to in a physical retail store?

Tara: That's a great question. We do have a large percentage of crossover between our owned eCommerce, our owned brick-and-mortar, and then wholesale. We know that we have a core group of consumers who love the brand product, trust it, believe in the quality, and shop multiple channels. But then some segments are exclusive to the brick-and-mortar channel or the eCommerce channel — and we have a lot of different initiatives that pull that in. 

We're investing heavily in digital as well as the in-store experience because we can't let that get stale. We're pulling all of that together and making major investments, so within 18 months we'll have a lot of data coming into the business and, in turn, have a much better view of the customer.  

Brian: As an industry, I feel like we believe we can train our best digital customer to go in-store and become omni, or vice versa. While that might be a brand’s goal, is that achievable? Can you train all customers to act like your VIPs?

Tara: The philosophy we take is to ensure that wherever that consumer wants to buy, they have the best brand experience. We're not there yet at all, but we have consumers, younger consumers, who want to buy through social media; we want to make sure that journey is seamless. We have consumers who only want to buy through eCommerce, and we have consumers who want the sit-and-fit experience in stores. I'm not going to force any of these people to try to be omnichannel if that's not what they want. I want to deliver the best experience. Once they're in your ecosphere, you can potentially bring them into other channels. These shoppers have a higher lifetime value, which is exciting, but for us, our number one goal isn't to try to force people to be omnichannel because a lifetime value is higher. It is to deliver the best brand experience that we possibly can, no matter what channel they want to come through, and really service them that way.

Brian: The real benefit of providing the best possible customer experience, no matter what channel someone lands in, is that that first experience is going to change the whole trajectory.

Tara: One hundred percent. It’s all about that first impression; the word-of-mouth potential there is huge. 

Brian: And then when someone shares that referral, what they’re doing is sharing their reality of Clarks with someone else and imparting that worldview of the brand to them. What they’re actually doing is expanding their viewpoint. 

Tara: Yes, I agree.

Brian: How are you trying to bring younger consumers into the world of Clarks?

Tara: It’s all about innovation. Many people think about innovation as this big, lofty word that you spend millions of dollars on — and then there's an “Innovation Group” that does everything. 

We don't have a separate innovation group. Innovation is baked into our approach and we approach innovation in three different buckets:

We have small innovation, which everybody does and it’s baked into the everyday. That’s all about how we make something we’re doing better. So, for example, we were doing paid social and it was mediocre. We swapped our total creative approach, including the customization and personalization aspects. 

Then, we look at midsize innovation, and those initiatives are typically calculated risks. For example, we have a sizable kids business in the UK, but the back-to-school campaign we were doing felt too formulaic and the business wasn't going in the direction we wanted it to. We knew we needed to do something differently and we took a calculated risk by doing all of this research to understand how consumers are interacting with brands. Through that process, Roblox kept bubbling up with the kids, so I networked, got hooked up with an agency that knew what they were doing in Roblox, and we created an entire Roblox world; a Clarks world called CICAVERSE.

We had an experience that tied our in-store, our eCommerce, our social, and all of our different channels into this world. We had some of our consumers integrated into the development of it, as well as some of our influencers. That became the creative campaign as well as the media buy of sorts, and we found great success. We're back for year two with that, but that was a calculated risk. 

And then I look at huge innovation, which tends to be a multi-year roadmap, major CapEx investment, and also requires board approval, change management in the organization, and doing things completely different. For us right now, that is a total replatforming of our eCommerce site, which we haven't done in many years. We're doing all of our in-store POS so that there can be that connection, and that's a huge undertaking. All of the technology that we use to engage with the consumer today will be completely new and innovative technology moving forward. 

We don’t have the luxury of putting 20% of our budget aside to do crazy ideas and see what happens. We're focused on how we strategically embed innovation in everybody's life. It's the same thing I talk about with diversity, equity, and inclusion. You're not going to just give it to a department and go focus on that. It's baked into everybody's job description. That's how I look at innovation.

Brian: I want to zero in on the work you’re doing in Roblox. What you are doing by playing in these digital spaces, where children are already congregating, is future-proofing your already future-proofed brand for 200 years. You’re also investing in how your current customers perceive your brand in those channels, too. You have to do both.

Tara: Yes, that is yet another reason why we've done stuff like Roblox. It’s about connecting with the kids and becoming culturally relevant. To your point, Roblox became everything for my kids, especially during the pandemic. That was their playdates because they couldn't connect in person. That was their social media. That was their gaming time. That was their entertainment. That was their everything.

Brian: It's their first commerce experience.

Tara: They don't communicate through traditional channels like we do. Texting is archaic to them. My daughter checks her email every three months. Instead, they use platforms like Roblox and Snapchat. That's how they communicate with each other. 

Brian: And their media is YouTube and Shorts. It's TikTok. They are watching gaming content. Their media moments are different than millennial media moments. And what you're doing is you're stepping into media and having a moment in a way that doesn't make sense to the millennial. Our shoe moments are in the office or some movie, but their media moments are in Roblox and Fortnite.

Tara: Absolutely. And what I love about these spaces is that they’re all about creation. Whether you talk about TikTok, which is about creation and entertainment; or Roblox, which has the gaming aspect of it, but also creation and entertainment. It’s a completely different form of connecting with the consumer through marketing channels, which is so exciting because when I first started in marketing, there were clear marketing channels. You built campaigns and you put the funnel through those marketing channels. Now, there's so much. The pace of change and innovation that's happening in our industry is crazy. The hardest part is weeding through all of it.

Brian: I wonder sometimes if we abandon or neglect opportunities that are inherently less measurable because the current crop of talent is so trained on focusing and doubling down on things that are measurable. But the future is not measurable because it doesn't exist yet. We can't quantify it yet. 

Tara: Email or social are great, but they’re lower down the funnel. The channels and platforms that are making the brand relevant — and inspiring people to look at the Clarks brand — are not extremely measurable. That’s where I think that whole brand approach and reinventing the brand is key. 

For example, if we partner with an ambassador or a celebrity, developing that correlation to sales is very difficult. But over time, you can see that your brand has relevance. We do a lot of brand barometer studies, so we'll look at different metrics that we know we can't instantaneously measure to see the impact.

I'm a huge fan of data, insights, and market intelligence, but some of it is knowing culture, networking, and being a consumer yourself.

I am a huge consumer. I buy too much online. I love brands, I love fashion, I love all of that. 

Brian: And what role do in-person moments and activations play for the brand? Like you’ll have a presence at Art Basel, right? 

Tara: I talk a lot about the fact that our brand and shoes are canvases for people to create, whether it's how they style their outfit or if they physically adapt the shoes and create different things. We've had so many amazing partners that we've worked with and people that we haven't worked with that have come forth with brilliant designs and customizations of our product. So this year at Art Basel, we're going to be pulling that world together. 

People think Art Basel must just be for artists, but some of the most amazing brands from all around the world go there because it's all about creation, storytelling, and theater. It doesn't matter what industry you're in, you can benefit from that. 

Brian: But when you make that sort of an investment, the team has to work on it. You have to bring it to life. And to some, that’s a big distraction.

Tara: It's not easy.

Brian: But events are great. Earned media is also great.

Tara: Oh, yeah — then the event grows from a couple hundred people to a few million people.

Brian: How do you get legs out of something like that? Where does the activation at Art Basel wind up after it's all said and done? 

Tara: There are many different ways that we benefit from something like an activation at Art Basel. We’ll bring in influencers and press to experience what we're doing; that's where you go from a couple hundred people who experience something awesome, to millions of people [in reach]. 

A lot of our wholesale partners, like some of the best, coolest sneaker and shoe boutiques in the world are there, too, because it's all about the creation and fashion influence. So we'll also partner with them while we're down there, which is fantastic for the brand. And then, of course, the consumer loves Art Basel. It’s showing our brand in such a unique environment to these massively influential consumers who are out there. 

We typically take any event we do and we’ll capture the right people there, who will then vocalize their experience with the brand and we’ll get eyeballs on it to help evolve that perception and to become culturally relevant as a brand.

Everybody thinks I'm all about digital but I care just as much, if not more, about the physical, in-person event experience as well, because they're so meaningful.

Brian: It's such a specific type of consumer that's at Art Basel, one that's ready to absorb something new. And I think about how this flows down to your website, which you're replacing. It’s just incredible to me. Do you have any insight into how some of those initial, bleeding edge-type moments end up working their way into the everyday?

Tara: I think some of them are instantaneous, but I think some of them take a long time. While I do see it benefiting the consumer, I see an even greater impact on the internal team. So somebody like Martine Rose — who we’re partnering with for Art Basel and is one of our guest creative directors — she isn’t just on the cutting edge; she's developing the fashion trends. When she works with our internal team, her influence flows all the way through to the consumer. There are the instant benefits to the consumer with somebody like Martine Rose, her vision, and what she's creating with the Clarks brand. But then it trickles down throughout our organization and comes out in other forms. That, to me, is one of the most exciting parts.

Brian: Do you find that’s speeding up that whole cycle?

Tara: It’s so much faster. Trends that used to take years to emerge now happen in days. 

Brian: When you think about those trend cycles compressing, how do you stay in front of it? 

Tara: I mean, there's the D word, the data, the insights. Networking. I have so many friends at other brands — even the competitive brands. We all connect and share information to see what's happening. 

But as a team being within the fashion sphere, within footwear, we're shopping markets. We look at our global teams all around the world to bubble up those trends that they're seeing in-market because one could be happening in Tokyo, Japan. 

We start to see a trend bubbling up, which then could infiltrate throughout the rest. So we're looking at those constantly. And then we’re focused on seeing things in-person; because there's only so much that can come through in data and in a report.

You need to be in the market, touching and feeling it, chatting with consumers, and seeing trends. Market travel is extremely important to us.