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The Big Kick-Off

Vikas Kumar, Outlook Business

New Delhi, June 21, 2014

On Gurudwara Road in central Delhi’s bustling and crowded Karol Bagh market, it is easy to miss the nondescript, grey four-storey building that houses Aero Group’s corporate office. Entering the reception, you feel as if you have been transported to a trading house from the 1980s. The ageing paint and weathered wood paneling gives the sense of a company steeped in its past, nowhere close to the youthful and vibrant image of Woodland, the popular homegrown adventure brand it represents.

That is, until you step into the cramped but modern elevator that takes you up to the first floor. Here, gleaming workspaces, open layouts, wall cabinets whose doors cleverly double up as writing boards all give out a fresh vibe of a company gearing up for the future.

Clearly, Woodland is a brand that’s being refreshed for a new innings. The transformational process has been underway for some time now, says MD Harkirat Singh. “We needed to reinvent the way we do business, because if we didn’t change, somebody else would have come in,” he says.

Since its launch in 1992, Woodland has single-handedly built a small category — outdoor lifestyle — and grown it through a mix of sharply targeted advertising for its young buyers, community building and events and alliances with environmental organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations Children’s Fund. In doing so, it has cleverly straddled an expanding adventure gear market.

“Woodland connects with the outdoor lifestyle image without being dependent on it,” agrees Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, a retail consulting firm.

Now, Singh and his team are upping the ante. Preparations have been underway for a couple of years: a new line of innovative products has been unveiled and the brand extended into specialised categories within the adventure and outdoors space. Take, for instance, shoes and garments used in mountaineering, trekking, cycling and equipment for rappelling. The idea was to address the needs of entry-level users and not necessarily professional climbers and trekkers to begin with. “Some products need safety approvals and we may not go for them right now,” points out Singh. For sourcing such products, it has tied up with global manufacturers. A few of these products have already been introduced, such as GoPro outdoor cameras and climbing stick sourced from an Italian company, and trekking umbrellas from a German supplier.

The initial response has been encouraging, prompting Woodland to work on a plan to introduce five to ten new products each year. “Right now, I am holding a Woodland shoe with Gore-Tex lining and a Vibram sole, which will cost you only Rs 8,000 a pair,” says Singh, who is down south visiting the company’s Kochi store. The point Singh wants to make is this: Woodland makes shoes that are comparable with global brands.

But old-time sellers such as Avinash Kamath of Mumbai’s Avi Industries haven’t heard of these yet. He remembers the company’s traditional range being perceived as rugged but bulky and unsuitable for climbing mountains. “Their shoes are 50% heavier compared with European brands,” he says. Started by his father in the ’70s, the business is run by Kamath, a seasoned mountaineer. Stores such as Avi, Adventure18 in Delhi and Cliff Climbers in Dehradun have been the go-to places for gear for professional or early mountaineers. They are also the key influencers for the category, which grows mainly by word-of-mouth. Kamath is pleasantly surprised when told about Woodland’s advanced range. “If they have such products, they should be promoting them.” It’s exactly what Woodland is trying to do with marketing and innovation.

Brand push

From selling shoes to adding apparel (extending into a more formal line of wear under the Woods brand), the Rs 1,000-crore group has come a long way from its origins as a supplier of finished leather uppers to footwear manufacturers across the globe. An impulsive decision to replicate a design that the Aero Group was manufacturing for an Italian client and test it in the Karol Bagh market led to the creation of a brand that is now available in 4,000 multi-brand outlets and boasts of 450 exclusive showrooms in around 200 cities. In the past few years, Woodland has been clocking 13% to 18% growth (see: On a firm footing), compared with 20% for the overall footwear and apparel market. But Singh is in no hurry to grow any faster. Though he wants the company, which earns 60% of its revenues from footwear, to be seen as a more entrenched and focused player in the outdoor wear and adventure gear business, which currently accounts for a negligible share of revenues.

The reason — the adventure sports market is gradually picking up pace in India on the back of corporate outbound programmes and a general sense of awareness through television. Trekking, climbing and rapelling have been most popular in that regard. It’s a category that barely existed among the most passionate of adventure lovers — trekkers, mountain hikers and climbing enthusiasts. “The outdoor category is a huge universe. We are addressing only a small part,” says Singh. And the company is doing that by creating awareness of the category, celebrating everyday heroes. Woodland’s brand ambassadors include people such as Loveraj Singh Dharmshaktu, an assistant commandant in the Border Security Force who has climbed Mt Everest five times; Planning Commission employee and ace endurance runner Arun Bhardwaj; Deeya Suzannah Bajaj, who at 14 was the first and youngest Indian to go kayaking in the Arctic Ocean in Greenland; and Archana Sardana, who is the country’s first woman B.A.S.E. jumper, skydiver and scuba diving instructor. Woodland, in fact, developed special gear — a flappy bird-like jacket — for Sardana for B.A.S.E. jumping, considered among the riskiest sports since it involves leaping off buildings and bridges with a small parachute.

Apart from using images and videos of these ambassadors and sharing details of their achievements on its website, Woodland also leverages them as field testers for its ongoing product development and design process. Dharmshaktu, who has been tapped for his feedback on a new range of jackets, has also been hired as a consultant for an upcoming adventure zone being created on the outskirts of Delhi. Located on a 100-acre property on the Faridabad-Gurgaon Road at the foothills of the Aravallis, Singh says the zone, which is likely to be ready in six months, will serve as an events hub to connect with its audience and demonstrate its newer range of mountain gear.

True to its Timberland-inspired positioning, Woodland has stayed consistent over the years about what it stands for — rugged, outdoorsy and for people with a desire to explore and seek adventure. Communication, too, has remained largely consistent with the brand’s core values. “Over the years, it’s been the most well-defined brand I’ve worked on,” says Tanul Bhartiya, senior VP at Lowe Lintas & Partners, the agency that’s been handling the brand since its launch in India, now under division Karishma Advertising. While Woodland’s advertising is largely print-centric, over the years, there has been a greater push towards digital marketing to stay connected with its target group — 18-24 year olds. The rethink process was kicked off four years ago, when Singh enrolled for a two-week Taking Marketing Digital course at Harvard Business School with Amol Dhillon, vice-president, strategy and planning. That led to a digital marketing push for the brand that continues over popular platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Woodland now has 3.2 million fans on Facebook and 6,000 followers on Twitter. Its in-house social media content team is currently working on a Woodland TV app for iOS and Android, and a quarterly digital adventure magazine modelled along the lines of Redbull’s Red Bulletin. “Brands have to be their own content creators,” says Dhillon.

All these initiatives assume importance as the larger market for adventure and sports goods opens up in the country.

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