When outdoor footwear brand Merrell sought a fresh idea to promote sustainability and conservation, it turned to the innovation team at parent company Wolverine World Wide Inc.
At the Rockford-based portfolio company, Global Vice President of Innovation Barry McGeough quarterbacks a designated innovation staff of just three, working across its 13 footwear brands to not just dream up ideas but execute them.
“It’s about productization,” McGeough said. “It’s about the idea of changing the idea of innovation from a think tank to being someone that productizes ideas.”
In the case of Merrell, McGeough and his Wolverine World Wide innovation team that was assembled two years ago worked with the brand to create its ReTread program.
ReTread, which was recently launched in both the United States and Canada, allows customers to send in their old Merrell shoes and get a coupon for $20 off a new shoe. The old shoes are restored and resold when possible, or otherwise ground up and used for other purposes. Nothing ends up in a landfill.
Merrell, which plans to eventually roll the program out on a worldwide scale, has set a goal to save 300,000 shoes from landfills by 2025.
“Merrell came to us with a set of problems,” McGeough said. “They said, ‘We’re an outdoor brand, there is a lot of noise around us about resale, recircularity, rental — we don’t have a point of view.’ We’ll take that as the problem statement. We brought them five or six ideas … they went for the big, hairy audacious goal.”
Right now, men’s and women’s shoes can only be submitted through a process detailed on the ReTread website, but Merrell is exploring the idea of providing drop-off sites at various retail locations. McGeough and his team are central in the legwork required to continue rolling out ReTread, just as they are with any other innovation within the company.
Merrell Marketing Manager Regina Hill said Wolverine’s team vetted solutions and helped the brand connect with appropriate partners for the ReTread program.
This is a luxury available to the other brands in the Wolverine World Wide portfolio, which includes names like Keds, Cat Footwear, Sperry and Sweaty Betty.
“By operating in a solutions-oriented, agile manner, our in-house innovation team has continuously helped us move beyond the time, knowledge and resource barriers we may face at any given time to support us in bringing our ideas to life,” Hill said. “The Merrell ReTread program is a perfect example of this.”
From idea to product
Merrell’s ReTread program is one example of Wolverine’s new approach to innovation — one that has to deliver on the needs of brands with wide ranging needs.
McGeough said the most effective first step in sparking innovation is when brands bring a need or problem to his team. The innovation team provides a number of solutions or ideas and the brand selects which one they’d like to adopt and scale, as was the case with Merrell.
“The thing is, when I tell you what to do, you tell me to go to hell,” McGeough said. “Nobody wants me to tell them how to run their business. We really have to think about how to engage with our brands.
“You give me a problem first. I’ll give you 10 solutions and they pick the best one. Then, I go and deliver,” McGeough said.
However, Wolverine’s innovation team does more than just rifle through its Rolodex and connect a brand with a trusted third-party vendor. They handle all of the grunt work to execute the idea, from product development agreements to non-disclosure agreements, master service agreements, and statements of work.
Another misconception McGeough routinely encounters is that companies must invest in their own in-house infrastructure to innovate. For example, in the footwear space, some might assume that Wolverine World Wide would benefit from operating an in-house rubber lab. But McGeough cautioned that investing too heavily in one aspect can be constraining, and it’s also not ideal for a company that operates multiple brands.
“There are tons of people that test. There are tons of people that create. There are tons of people that ideate,” McGeough said. “We look more toward the open innovation community to say, ‘What are you doing out there that we can grab on to?’”
As an example, Wolverine World Wide has worked with a third party to gain access to a sustainable type of leather made from mushrooms as opposed to developing and testing the material in-house.
“I don’t have 10 years and $15 million to develop one thing,” McGeough said. “But I can say we’ll give you a joint development agreement, figure out the funding and figure out how we can help you to cover the costs of developing this so it fits the purposes for me. I’m using their expertise. I’m leveraging. We leverage like crazy. That’s the secret sauce — we don’t spend all our money and constrain ourselves.”
Areas of innovation for Wolverine brands have focused mainly on materials and digital solutions. The latter has been fast tracked to help meet the needs of brands during the pandemic. The innovation team also has helped with things like augmented and virtual reality to help with sales.
McGeough readily admitted that no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation exists. This can be seen in the fact that furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. takes a polar opposite, all-hands-on-deck approach to innovation.
“Frankly, I worry that if you do just have one group, either you exhaust a small group of people who are trying to cross a lot of business units or you’re not able to generate that broad awareness (of ideas),” said Gale Moutrey, vice president of innovation and brand management for Steelcase. “Having that ongoing information sharing I think is a really big deal.”
At Steelcase, innovation happens across departments, like manufacturing, information technology and design. Cross functional teams are essential in moving these innovations along, according to Moutrey.
“Is it feasible, is it viable and is it desirable?” Moutrey said. “That’s a framework we use. It helps you eliminate some of the ideas that are a little too out there.”
Steelcase was built on innovation, which included pioneering the concept of making wooden office furniture out of metal instead. And for an industry this old, plenty of innovation is still available, especially as businesses rethink their approach to work in the post-COVID era.
“The materials you use, not only in the product but also the shipping of the product, that’s a really big area of opportunity because it matters so much,” Moutrey said. “The other thing is trying to work in a hybrid workplace, more specifically hybrid collaboration. What does that look like?”