Sorel Defies All Seasons
by Will Novosedlik
September 6, 2017
Mon pays, c’est l’hiver. Mes bottes, c’est Sorel.
You know summer’s over when you start seeing ads for foul-weather gear. And you know you’re in Canada when the ads are for Sorel.
I recently found myself on a subway platform staring at a handful of columns wrapped with Sorel messaging, strategically placed at the bottom of the stairs so you couldn’t miss them. The campaign focuses on fall fashions built for heavy rain, with images of leaping millennials (or were they Gen Zer’s?) shod in chukkas, Chelseas, wingtips and wedges on one side, product on the other.
Taglines like “Defy Limits,” “Built for Anything” and “Afraid of Nothing” accompany product and model shots, presumably, if you’ll forgive the banality of the observation, appealing to the creative, rebellious spirit of target customers across the Millennial/Gen Z spectrum.
Sorel is one of the rare Canadian consumer brands that have made it globally. Introduced in 1962 by Kitchener, Ontario–based Kaufman Rubber Co., it has become the best-selling brand of cold-weather footwear in the world. Sorel winter boots are as Canadian as toques, canoes and maple syrup. In the dead of winter no one leaves home without them.
As brands go, Sorel occupies a semiotic sweet spot that lies at the intersection of its country of origin and the nature of its product. In the words of Gilles Vigneault, “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.” Canada is winter. It’s ice and snow. Sorel’s value proposition—warm, dry feet in the worst of winter conditions—is uniquely and indissolubly tied to what it means to be Canadian. It’s as authentic as it gets. In this context, the taglines can be interpreted as genuine product benefits. You can indeed defy the limits of winter, you need fear nothing and you can be ready for anything it can throw at you. In a literal sense, that’s the truth.
But back to the chukkas, Chelseas, wingtips and wedges: does Sorel have permission to embrace fashion? Can the brand stretch that far? We all associate the brand with its most iconic product: the “1964 Premium.” Maybe it’s just me, but over the last five winters or so, I’ve noticed more and more ’64s on people’s feet. They are worn with a combination of pride and pragmatism that actually makes the clunky things defiantly fashionable.
Clearly Sorel has decided to increase its penetration in adjacent categories (rain and fashion) and it needs new ideas to accomplish that. Fashionable waterproof footwear is an undersubscribed category. Should be a win-win. It’s like Volvo—it stands for safety but still looks pretty sporty.
Given its global footprint, Sorel can leverage its country of origin status and act as a kind of iconic ambassador for Canada. This country, as I have noted in previous issues of this magazine, currently enjoys standout status among nations. That should shine a halo on Sorel as it brings fashionable utility to the rest of the world.
Will Novosedlik likes playing in traffic at the intersections of business, brand, design and innovation. He's worked both as a consultant and client on brands such as Telus, TD Bank, Bata International, Williams-Sonoma, Vodafone and Deutsche Telecom in Canada, the US, North Africa and Europe.