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 ₹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.
From selling shoes to adding apparel (extending into a more formal line of wear under the Woods brand), the ₹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.
Bring it on
Though not in direct competition, Woodland will now have to contend with newer players entering its turf, even as older rivals cede ground. French sports and adventure goods retailer Decathlon is now available in India — its Quechua label is a popular brand among mountaineers and Woodland is watching its progress carefully. On familiar turf, Woodland has managed to ward off a larger threat from Timberland, the brand it’s said to be inspired from. The popular New England (US) brand, which changed ownership in 2011 to North Carolina-based VF Corporation, is represented in India by Reliance Brands. The resemblance has been uncanny right down to the logo. But with 14 points of sale that include eight brand stores and six shop-in-shops, the iconic brand — known for its signature Yellow Boot — has settled to “peacefully coexist” with Woodland after filing for intellectual property (IP) infringement and losing the case in 2012 as the latter was the first mover in India. In what should be music to Singh’s ears, Darshan Mehta, CEO, Reliance Brands, points out that Reliance is unlikely to renew Timberland’s brand licensing agreement for India that comes to an end by mid-2015. “We had already stopped expanding [Timberland outlets] a year back,” adds Mehta.
Woodland has been aggressively adding 60-70 stores every year, and this year will see similar numbers, Singh says. “We are more conservative in our new store additions since we do not follow a franchisee model.” With a footprint extending to towns such as Thodupuzha (Kerala), Ambikapur (Chattisgarh), Barnala (Punjab) and Hamirpur (UP), Singh is confident of introducing new lines to every corner of the country.
But it won’t be a cakewalk for Woodland. Professional users of outdoor gear aren’t really Woodland’s core customers: they depend on globally established brands that are specialists in each line of adventure goods. Hardcore mountaineers, for instance, swear by brands such as Quechua, Merrell, Lafuma, North Face, Mountain Hardwear and Millet, even though they are far more expensive — in the ₹10,000-₹14,000 range on average. Also, leading brands use the Gore-Tex waterproof leather treatment or its equivalent, which is a must for professional climbers, who often climb in snow. Similarly, Vibram outsoles, with their non-slippery grip, are de rigueur in trekking and climbing shoes. “I would never recommend [Woodland shoes] in their current state for high-altitude trekking. These shoes are very heavy,” says a mountaineer who runs her own adventure sports firm. Atul Anand, director, Cliff Climbers says, “Woodlands’ shoes are not at all comparable to technical products.” Shoes are among the three elements of a good trek along with a light and well-designed backpack and the right kind of clothes.
It’s clear that even as the brand ambassador programme is creating the right buzz for its potential and current customers, there are enough gaps in this sphere. Many of these influencers aren’t informed about or convinced of its professional line of products.Singh is aware of the challenges that the brand faces and it’s not surprising that he’s looking to up the ante — by focusing on innovation and evolving their products to appeal to the serious adventurer.
It all happened when Singh, who was already thinking of ways to innovate, heard about IDEO’s design innovation course at Stanford University. Last year, Singh and Dhillon attended the intensive five-day programme, where they picked up lessons on consumer centricity through IDEO’s famed design thinking framework. As part of the course module, Singh and Dhillon had to spend time inside Los Angeles International Airport chatting up 20 passengers at random to understand their needs and concerns relating to airline services, boarding and check-in procedures. That module was for US carrier JetBlue, which had roped in IDEO to design a service offering that would appeal to frequent travellers and those passengers willing to pay more and generate new revenue — without alienating its core customers. Through this exercise, the duo picked up cues on designing a better service experience for the Woodland brand back home. “It changed our way of thinking. We came back with an open mind to talk to our customers,” he says.
Back in India, Singh was quick to organise brainstorming sessions for each vertical of the business, from marketing to store sales and from manufacturing to design. Product ideas were discussed, so were ways to improve store productivity. “We asked our store sales people to talk to customers about what matters to them and use that understanding to help us improve our offerings and service,” says Singh. As it turned out, the feedback was that customers were looking for something “revolutionary”.
Armed with this new insight, Singh got down to raising the bar for Woodland. It began with technology, as Woodland roped in ‘geeks’ to introduce new features into its products. Over the past six months, the company has rolled out a slew of new products as part of the initiative. One such product is a shoe that allows blind people to trek. Another one, developed with the help of former NASA scientists, is a battery-operated jacket with heating pads that regulate temperature on long treks and sub-zero climes. Then there’s the ResQ jacket, which is embedded with the RECCO directional radar ‘reflector’ chip for precise location search in case its wearer gets caught in an avalanche. The signals from the chip can be detected up to depths of 30 metre below ice, and it runs without a battery. There are warm grip shoes to ward off frostbite at temperatures up to -20 degrees Celsius, powered by a lithium-ion battery and a warming coil fitted into the outsole. Woodland has also come out with outdoor bags fitted with solar powered chargers for mobile phones and other gadgets and is recycling plastic into fibre to make garments. Some of these ideas also came from the technology and outdoor sports-focused Consumer Electronics Show, an annual exhibition held every year in Las Vegas to showcase innovation in consumer technologies, and Ispo Munich, the world’s largest platform for young entrepreneurs in the sporting goods business.
Woodland is also backing up the new products with a campaign scripted by Lowe Lintas & Partners, titled ‘Live to tell the tale’, which showcases gear for adventurers to survive the harsh outdoors. The campaign, comprising outdoor hoardings, print ads and TV commercials, revolves around outdoor enthusiasts being rescued from tough situations.
Since the new innovations rely on technology, Woodland has taken the licensing route on the specific applications it uses them for. For example, the technology for the ResQ jacket is owned by Swedish company RECCO. Woodland pays it a royalty, plus a percentage of sales if the volumes are larger. These products are priced much higher and meant for specific or extreme uses. The jackets with heating pads, for example, are priced between ₹15,000 and ₹20,000 each. “These products are highlighters for our range. We don’t look for huge volumes on them,” says Singh. So the reflector radar jackets launched last season (winter) at a similar price band sold around 7,000 units, compared with the bestselling jacket, priced around ₹4,000-₹6,000, which sold up to two lakh units in a year.
These and the mainline products are manufactured across four locations — Baddi and Paonta Sahib for shoes, Dehradun and, recently, Roorkee for jackets and shoes. Jackets are also sourced from Bangladesh, while some products are sourced from factories in Vietnam and China. With an installed capacity of 500,000 pairs of shoes 200,000 pieces of apparel each month, the group’s manufacturing employs advanced and more precision-oriented techniques now to cater to the more demanding domestic market and an export business growing at 35% as well.
Singh, however, is unwilling to quantify the impact that new additions will bring to the business, even as he is banking on Woodland’s extensive reach for these products to piggyback on. “We have real depth in the market with our store network. This gives us an easy route to bring in new products and expand our portfolio,” he says.
Harminder Sahni, founder, Wazir Advisors, a Gurgaon-based retail consultancy firm, feels that Woodland has stayed true to its original values, which has served the company well. “They’ve managed to grow and yet not spread themselves too thin,” says Sahni. Only time will tell if the new bets will pay off. For now, Singh has no plans to outgrow the office building that has seen the brand prosper. “We have become very comfortable in this zone,” he says. That may change when competition comes knocking, but for now Singh is happy staying in the woods.