After first announcing it would shift its approach to philanthropy from the one-for-one model it made famous, footwear brand Toms is introducing a new impact strategy that doesn't involve giving out shoes.
In 2019, Toms said it was exploring alternative ways to be charitable. Whereas before it would donate one pair of shoes for every one it sold, it intended to instead move towards giving $1 for every $3 it made — while still distributing product whenever and wherever it could. Amy Smith, the company's Chief Strategy and Impact Officer, told Fashionista at the time: "The combination of Toms wanting to do as much as we could in a way that was aligned with the passions of our consumers, we really started to wrestle with this idea of, 'Maybe it's time to evolve a little bit and maybe it’s time to do more than just our one-for-one giving.'"
Fast-forward to 2021 — and its 15th anniversary — and Toms announced it would be leaving the one-for-one model behind, for good. Instead, it will donate at least one-third of annual net profits to grassroots organizations working on three specific issues: promoting mental health, increasing access to opportunity and ending gun violence.
"One-third of profits for grassroots good is the replacement for one-for-one, and we did that for a couple of different reasons," Smith tells Fashionista now. "We believe a grassroots approach is the right approach for Toms. Many companies will give a large sum of money to a well-established organization; we're saying we want to work in communities with leaders that know what's facing that community, and build a deep partnership with them. The second piece of it is the flexibility — creating a flexible model that allows us to evolve and respond to the issues that are facing communities today."
Smith explains that Toms's giving efforts have more or less always equated to redistributing one-third of profits — "we're just transitioning how it shows up from a shoe to a giving fund." What the brand wanted to ensure, though, was that it "could sustain this model" long-term, and allow the Giving Team (which Smith leads) enough flexibility to better support its partners. You can read the work it's already done in the Toms Impact Report.
"We learned a lot giving shoes for 14 years — how to give well, how to integrate into existing programming, how to ask the right questions and better understand a partner's needs," Smith says, noting that the first time Toms started exploring the new model was when it began working with organizations pledging to end gun violence. It ended up being a turning point: "We really learned a lot from leaders in local communities, understanding what they needed. Instead of assuming that we knew what a community needed, we asked the question, and that's the heart and soul of this model. Instead of saying, 'Let's do this because we have dollars and want to tell that story,' it's much more, 'Let's sit down together. Please inform and teach us about the issues facing this community and how you have a vision, network and a passion for resolving them. In what ways do you think you're going to go about that?'"
Beyond writing a check, Toms wants to be a resource to its grassroots partners, offering access to the brand's marketing and photography capabilities, for example, which could be helpful to them, as well as lending its existing platform, to share their stories.
"One of the primary things these organizations need and ask for is awareness," argues Ian Stewart, chief marketing officer. "We've been able to elevate them on our platforms, and we have a really robust strategy for talking about our impact and our partners on Instagram. Amplification is a big one — celebrating them in our photography, putting their stories in the limelight."
Timed to this announcement and anniversary, Toms is also introducing a new look across its branding and product — the first major update to its aesthetic since the brand launched, basically.
It began last year, when Toms hired the branding company Red Antler to work on creative refresh, with a focus on appealing to Gen Z. "We want it to be optimistic and colorful and positive, versus dark," Stewart says. "We wanted to put energy because we're a footwear brand — we wanted to put motion and movement into it all." During that process, "we didn't really say that we wanted to keep anything or lose everything or lose anything. But where they came back to with us is, it's very similar. It's recognizably Toms."
On the branding side, here's what's different: the logo, which has been stripped down (and a new one was created specifically to promote grassroots good); the color palette, which went from exclusively light blue, black and white to that, but with more rainbow hues mixed in. "We're not afraid to not have rigid rules and unleash all sorts of interpretations with color," he adds. "It's this color vibrancy, optimism, youthfulness."
Then, in terms of its product, Toms is doubling down on the Alpargata, giving the original style a few key updates and reimagining the silhouette with new textures and shapes. "Magnus [Wedhammar, CEO] is a 25-year footwear veteran. He's really big on honoring and celebrating the icon and honoring and modernizing the DNA. Really, that's what he's done," Stewart says. "He's taken all of these elements... and said, 'Let's take the core, iconic silhouette and make it modern. Let's make it higher, wider, more comfortable. Let's use fun, modern materials, colors and prints.' But it's still recognizably Toms. The bulk of our sales are the alpargata, so we would be wise to modernize [it] and extend from what everybody knows. We really want to celebrate slip-ons — easy to wear, relevant to the times."
Now that "the shoe's out of the box, so to speak" and the brand has broken with the way it had done things for over a decade, Stewart continues, a lot of possibilities arise. "It's not that we're going to change our identity every season — that would be frivolous and expensive," he notes. "Gen Z wants to rip up the rule book and have fun, in an optimistic and energetic way. We'll just keep going down that path."
Smith echoes this, noting how this thinking applies to what they're doing as a company now, too: "Take the best of our learnings on the impact side, on the product side and on the marketing side and rip up the rest and have fun with what we're trying to do moving forward."
A lot has changed since Toms first came on the scene. This idea of a philanthropic brand isn't as rare anymore, especially as consumers are much more aware and mindful about the impact of their spending. So, "we felt it was so important for us to evolve with that," Smith says. "We sort of see ourselves as innovators and, in the beginning, the leader of the movement — and we're so proud that so many other companies have come to realize the value proposition of being a purpose-driven organization. So many new ones that I get the honor to meet, and a lot of large companies saying, 'We want to retrofit into this' or, 'We want to bring more of this to life.'"
She goes on: "This next innovation we're doing around grassroots good, that's pretty unprecedented. We don't know many other companies that are giving at that level. [I hope it] really inspires the movement to continue and inspires people who've been in it for awhile to continue to innovate, whatever that means for their brand. And we want to share the story. We want to share our learnings. We're going to get a lot of it right, but we're not going to get all of it right. We're going to learn as we go, and we want to share that with the world and continue to innovate, to help this movement of profit and purpose go forward. I truly believe that is how we will solve the world's issues."