How TOMS Shoes Built A Multi-Million-Dollar Movement

Visakan Veerasamy
Visakan Veerasamy
July 24, 2015
2 min read
How TOMS Shoes Built A Multi-Million-Dollar Movement

In this article

TOMS Shoes has grown from selling shoes out of an apartment to a $300m+ company in just 9 years, giving away over 45 million pairs of shoes to charity.

In a Huffington Post article, Maryellen Tribby described how her 13-year-old daughter persuaded her to buy 3 pairs of TOMS shoes:

"I know it's a lot of money, but for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair is donated to help kids all over the world who can't afford shoes."

Hearing these words from her young daughter, Maryellen simply couldn't help but support the decision– spending $231 in the process.

She was so curious that she went on to research the brand herself, and wrote a post about it.

What was the marketing strategy TOMS used to inspire this level interest?

1. TOMS started with a compellingly personal story from founder Blake Mycoskie.


With his long, curly hair, TOMS' 'Chief Shoe Giver' Blake Mycoskie looks more like a backpacker than a conventional CEO.

He was a former contestant of The Amazing Race (losing the $1m prize by just four minutes).

The experience inspired him to travel to Argentina, where he witnessed first-hand the struggles faced by children without shoes.

He decided to do something about it, and he decided that the solution was to start a social enterprise.

Mycoskie's motivations are critical to the positioning of the business.

If people are going to spend more money on a pair of simple-looking shoes, they want it to have a story that they can buy into and feel a part of.

Recognizing this, TOMS features Blake's bio prominently on their website.

"It’s different from traditional marketing because we’re not just a shoe company, a sunglasses or a fashion company, or a coffee company. We’re not just selling — we’re also a movement." – Zita Cassizzi, TOMS' Chief Digital Officer

Word-of-mouth lesson to be learned:

For young companies of lifestyle brands, it can be incredibly helpful for the founder or CEO to be the face of the brand. The brand can benefit early on from effectively being an extension of the founder's personality.

Other brands that have leveraged this to significant success: Nasty Gal, Beardbrand.

2. In 2011, TOMS created a phenomena "One Day Without Shoes", much like the Ice Bucket Challenge

The movement has its own standalone site, It encouraged people to spend a normal day barefoot, allowing them to emphathize with children around the world who don't have the luxury of shoes.

The movement has the benefit of being highly visible (the 'Public' principle in action), allowing people to signal to their peers that they're socially conscious, that they're making a small sacrifice to contribute to raising awareness for a humanitarian problem.

The event has been held annually since 2007, with 1,600 events around the world and 250,000 people participating in 2010.

People clearly want to participate in something that feels meaningful to them.

Word-of-mouth lesson to be learnt:

If you can, create movements and events that are noteworthy. Red Bull does this by sponsoring extreme sports events, Victoria's Secret does this with an elaborate, exciting Fashion Show.

What do you do if you don't have a massive budget? Do something clever instead!

Warby Parker, for instance, won over the fashion editors of the New York Fashion Week by inviting them to a "secret show" at the public library– scoring points and coverage over more established brands with a little ingenuity.

3: Make participation effortless – donating over 290,000+ shoes just for barefoot photos on Instagram

TOMS Shoes: donation

It's easy to criticize this as encouraging slacktivism– taking a picture of one's bare feet is even easier than spending a day without shoes, or dumping a bucket of ice water over your head.

Surely there were uninterested people participating, just to look good?

Of course.

But TOMS donated the shoes anyway, and raised a ton of awareness in the process.

Word-of-mouth lesson to be learned:

If you can make people look good, for very little effort, you're going to raise awareness for your brand.

There will almost certainly be criticisms and accusations of slacktivism, but as long as your brand follows through on the promise (as with TOMS did, actually donating shoes to those in need), even the criticisms help to strengthen your brand.

4: Helping American Children In Need – Over 3,000,000+ views on YouTube video focusing on the plight of local children

The video focuses on individual stories and provides a really feel-good, inspiring vibe about helping others.

This is a classic example of the principle of storytelling in marketing, espoused in both Contagious and Made To Stick.

It very quickly and effectively helps potential customers (and even just the general public, who might not be interested in the brand) contextualize and position the brand in our heads.

Word-of-mouth lesson to be learned:

What's the story of your brand? What's the emotional significance? How does it help people lead better lives?

Answering this is of course easier for some brands than others. 'Charitable' brands and 'lifestyle' brands will have an easier time coming up with a story that resonates with large groups of people.

But even B2B brands can use storytelling– by focusing on motives, intent and purpose of their users.

5. TOMS' Tickets To Give – raising awareness by having influencers garner votes from their own communities

Can you create a contest with a prize that's worth canvassing for votes for? TOMS did.

Here's what TOMS' Chief Digital Officer Zita Cassizzi had to say about it:

"We encouraged those who submitted their inspirations to have their own communities vote for them, which really engaged their peers. “Hey, vote for me because I really would like to go on a giving trip.” So that’s one."

Every year, 50 TOMS fans are selected to travel with the company to assist with the shoe-giving mission. These fans have to create personal pages on the TOMS site, do a shore writeup about why they should be selected, and get friends, family and other fans to vote for them.

You can imagine what this must do for TOMS' traffic and SEO!

Word-of-mouth lesson to be learned:

If you can create a contest that gets fans excited to tell their friends about, you'll definitely build awareness for your brand. Anything that allows people to travel seems to be a great bet.

If you can't afford to pay for flights, think about how you could create a great experience for a fan. Perhaps you could have them tour your factory, or even let them be "CEO for a day".

The more promising the experience, the harder your most influential fans are going to push to win the prize.

Epilogue: "I Did Something For Someone."


"People connect with us because buying Toms is like a badge that says, "I did something for someone." If we can give customers the feeling of giving back, we can extend into Toms Hotels or Toms Banking or other ideas we haven't come up with yet, because the One for One model can be relevant to many things consumers do." – Blake  Mycoskie

Today TOMS is worth hundreds of millions. Mycoskie's written a book titled Start Something That Matters, journalling his personal journey and the formulation of the company.

An article on Forbes described them as "satisfying a powerfully consistent desire among consumers concerned with casually signaling personal authenticity through footwear."

That statement could be interpreted cynically. But it can also be interpreted quite neutrally. Humans have wants and needs, and businesses exist because they help to fulfill those wants and needs.

Question to ponder: What is your product a badge for?

That will help you figure out how to talk about your brand in a way that will get your fans and customers talking, too.


Read Next: Check out these awesome 25 marketing strategies from the fashion industry.

Visakan Veerasamy
Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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