Inside Wolverine’s ‘Collective’ Initiative, One of the Footwear Company’s Newest Transformation Strategies

When Wolverine Worldwide president and chief executive officer Chris Hufnagel first announced the formation of The Collective as part of a wider transformation plan in November, little was known what the initiative’s mandate encompassed.

Described by Hufnagel at the time as a new “strategic center of excellence,” The Collective is the result of Wolverine’s efforts to combine a reimagined innovation, insights, and trends team; an internal creative and public relations team; and an in-house creative production studio all in one place.

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“The Collective is intended to support and enable our brands product innovation design as well as creative storytelling to drive brand demand and heat in the marketplace,” Hufnagel said on the company’s third quarter conference call with analysts in November.

The announcement of The Collective came at the same time the Rockford, Mich.-based company revealed a group of initiatives that are expected to deliver $215 million in annualized savings, some of which included the sale of Sperry and other non-core assets.

Now, in an exclusive interview with FN, Kate Pinkham, the company’s vice president of innovation, is giving more insight into the new program. According to Pinkham, the concept behind The Collective comes from the company’s Merrell brand.

Kate Pinkham, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, executive, sneakers
Kate Pinkham, vice president of innovation at Wolverine Worldwide. Courtesy of Wolverine Worldwide

“The Collective builds off a pilot program that Merrell started about three years ago, where the brand built its own in-house public relations and creative team,” Pinkham told FN. “The Merrell team found that this union helped them produce more content on shorter timelines with a greater number of final assets while also remaining cost-efficient. Having ‘the agency’ embedded within the brand team also helped them be closer to Merrell’s purpose and values, thus allowing them to produce more emotionally relevant creative directed to the consumer.”

So, with the help from these learnings, Pinkham is now charged with leading The Collective and its three divisions – The Lab, The Agency and The Den – all of which just so happen to be female-led.

Saucony, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers, running sneakers, shoes
Saucony, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers, running sneakers, shoes

According to Pinkham, The Lab is Wolverine Worldwide’s new market intelligence, consumer insights and consumer futures and trend team led by Lindsey Goodman, senior director of consumer insights and market intelligence, and Rose Fulbright, director of consumer futures and trend. This team is focused on “consumer obsessions” and advancing these with innovation through a consumer lens, Pinkham noted.

The Agency is the company’s in-house creative and public relations team, led by Megan McCarl, director of public relations, and Kelly Warkentien, vice president and creative director. And The Den is the in-house production content studio, which also includes an external production team, all managed by Warkentien.

Merrell, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers
Merrell, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers

“I have an all-star, all-female team who are all veterans from within the company that understand the footwear industry and our portfolio of brands,” Pinkham said.

As of mid-January, The Collective had more than 40 team members, with more hires slated to occur over time. For now, Pinkham is focused on driving the company’s latest transformation strategy across Wolverine Worldwide’s top brands including Saucony, Merrell and Sweaty Betty.

Saucony, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers, running sneakers, shoes
Saucony, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers, running sneakers, shoes

And that transformation across brands is already in motion. During the ICR Conference earlier this month, Hufnagel teased some of the projects and newness the industry can expect to see from the company this year.

During his presentation earlier this month, Hufnagel called out how new products – mainly at Merrell and Saucony – are one of the ways the company expects to drive the business in 2024. These include the launch of five new collaborations involving the Moab Speed 2 in Merrell’s Hike category. For Trail, Merrell will also release the Agility Peak5, and for lifestyle, the brand is focused on the Wrapt sneaker, which is focused on its female consumers.

Merrell, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers, hiking sneakers, trail shoes
Merrell, Wolverine Worldwide, the collective, sneakers, hiking sneakers, trail shoes

As for Saucony, Hufnagel announced the brand’s upcoming Endorphin Pro 4 “super shoe.” The brand is also expected to heavily rely on its fashion lifestyle roots as seen with its recent Jae Tips collab and combining both run and lifestyle through the new Hurricane 24 sneaker.

“We enter the new year on increasingly firmer footing, and with a focus on furthering our efforts to transform the company into a great builder of global brands, investing in product design and storytelling to fuel future growth, and ultimately, creating greater value for our shareholders,” Hufnagel said at the time.

Summing up the purpose of The Collective, Pinkham added that she views the initiative as “the heart of the global brand building model” that will enable the company’s teams to be closer to the consumer.

“It’s really about helping to inspire a cultural transformation for the company as we become more creative and even more innovative,” Pinkham added. “It really exemplifies our commitment to transforming all facets of our business to be consumer obsessed global brand builders.”

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