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  Camper: the soul in the sole 

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There's an impressive 100-year prologue to Camper. The operation got its start in the 1870s when a young Mallorcan returned from London, England with shoe making equipment. He quickly imbued a culture of shoe making on the then-isolated island. The venture grew into Lottusse, which became the local standard for quality dress shoes. When the family business was passed down to the next generation, the island had started to receive a surge of tourists. The family moved into tourism and established Viajes Iberia, which today is one of Spain's largest tourism operators.

While the third generation was being groomed to take over the business, the youngest of the three brothers had a different idea - he saw standard footwear as too rigid. He wanted to make something more flexible. He sought comfort, design, color and shoes that both sexes could wear. The shoe was a reflection of the times. It represented freedom. The first model was born as "Camaleón" and it was made entirely from recycled components, including otherwise unusable off-cuts of leather, strips of canvas and used tires. It took its inspiration from the age-old custom of Mallorcan farmers to construct their own shoes by using scraps. The venture was named Camper, meaning peasant in Catalan, to reflect its rural roots.

Camper broke family tradition by deciding to have all of the product manufactured in independent third-party workshops instead of in the staid and true Lottusse factory. While this made some family members nervous about controlling quality, it put an unwavering focus on design and marketing.

In 1981, Camper opened up its own shop in Barcelona. Camper worked with prominent Barcelona retailer, Vinçon, to come up with the shop concept. The idea revolved around permitting consumers to actually touch the shoes. Most shops at the time required a consumer to select the shoe from behind a glass casing and engage the store clerk to check on size availability. As the company opened more shops, each new shop took on a life of its own. However, all were steadfast on communicating the Camper image of light-heartedness and creativity with a firm salute to its Mediterranean antecedents.

It was not until the late 1980s that Camper started to experience direct competition in the Spanish market. The first of the foreign entrants was Panama Jack. Camper rose to the challenge by innovating more product designs; from these groups of designs arose the infamous "Twins." Twins was based on a simple concept: Although complimentary to one another, each shoe in the pair had its own personality.

The company then set its sites beyond Spain, making its first attempt to internationalize by attending a trade show in Germany in 1987. While the brand and its designs attracted interest, buyers refused to purchase the shoes due to the fact that Spain was little known at that time. Camper's founder explained, "No one had seen a Spanish brand. Mind you, at the time Spain was producing lots of footwear, but it was always for other brands. In 1987, Spain had a terrible image for exporting to other countries in Europe. [Presenting the brand in Germany] was one of the worst moments in my life. Afterwards, we wanted to improve the image of Spain abroad."

By 1992, Spain's image abroad had taken a significant turn considering the attention of the Olympic Games in Barcelona and the Universal Exposition in Seville. Camper's team felt that the moment was prime for another attempt at international expansion. Camper set up four key shops in London, Paris, Milan and Cologne. During the expansion, foreigners inquired, "What is Camper?" The question led to a series of internal meetings to capture the Camper spirit in words. The gatherings announced a number of claims: tradition, history, Mediterranean, peasant, comfort, people, ecological and imagination. Above all, Camper eschewed the notion of being a "fashion" brand and opted to be known as an "industrial shoe designer."

The process of internationalization was boosted in 1996 when Camper received calls from Japanese companies looking for the "Brothers" line that they had seen in France and England. After the first shipments sold well in Japan, a series of orders followed, tabulating 100,000 units in the first year. Camper's success in Japan fueled company morale and provided the company with greater financial resources.

The next major hit was with the product "Pelotas" - a shoe that took styling cues from both old boxing and bowling shoes with a modern touch. Pelotas quickly became a standard across Europe and helped triple the size of the company in four years. Revenues moved from 43 million Euros in 1997 to 151 million Euros in 2001. Pelotas hit their peak in 2001 and then began declining. A series of other factors, such as pulling out from a large volume U.S. distribution deal, cut significantly into Camper's revenues in 2002 and 2003. Camper used the opportunity to tighten up operational efficiencies and it continued to innovate new products. One of the fruits of labor was "Wabi," a fully recyclable line of footwear. Whereas most shoes had 60 components, Wabi was made with only six.

The case study, "Camper: Imagination Is not Expensive" looks at Camper as of 2005. When Professor Rama Velamuri and case writer Jordan Mitchell met with the founding family, the company had just diversified into two businesses: a hotel called CasaCamper in Barcelona; and a restaurant called FoodBall, an ecological and healthy alternative to fast food. While many onlookers wondered what connection existed between footwear, hotels and restaurants, the founding family saw all to be intertwined: "It's the idea of shelter, clothing and food. I think in all three of these areas, Spain has a lot to say on an international level." The Camper team also believed that trotting the typical path of many other apparel manufacturers by licensing the brand name for products like bags, sunglasses, belts, t-shirts and other accessories would add only a little bit of money, and would contribute little to Camper's brand identity.

So, what exactly is the brand identity of Camper? That's for the reader of the case to ponder. One thing should become clear - the soles of Camper shoes are a lot more than the physical matter - under each sole, there's great soul.

This article is based on:  Camper: Imagination is not Expensive
Year:  2007
Language:  English