Going hell for leather in Asia

Going hell for leather in Asia

First to Bata, then to school.

Generations of Singaporeans remember the slogan even as their young press them to enter footwear stores sporting the Nike swoosh seen on Tiger Woods or the Reeboks favoured by actress Eva Mendes.

Sturdy. Dependable. Affordable. Available everywhere - in short, everything but trendy and exclusive - these were the attributes of the Bata brand since Thomas Bata began making shoes in 1894, about two decades after Levi Strauss, another European, patented the world's first blue jeans for the labouring classes in San Francisco.

The gold rush is no longer in California but in Asia. And that's where Mr Jack Clemons, Bata's chief executive since January, is spending a lot of his time these days as he charts a new path for one of the world's biggest brands, recognised in 70 countries and sold to a million customers daily through 6,000 stores, more than a third of which are in Asia.

"We are fortunate that the middle class is expanding, particularly in Asia, both in terms of people and the money they have," Mr Clemons told The Sunday Times during a recent visit to Singapore.

"Our challenge is to ensure that we continue to serve those people amid the wider choice available and greater exposure to global trends."

The course he is setting traverses two paths. First, even as Bata stays the top supplier of school shoes in many markets, it is shedding its "boring" tag for a snappier image.

In India, its biggest market, for instance, it ran a campaign called "Be Surprised". The idea, said Mr Clemons, was to invite customers into Bata stores "to be surprised with the diversity of choice, the brands and the fashion we have". A resurgence of customers ensued.

The other is diversification. While brands like Montblanc, which made pens that rode in a man's breast pocket, have travelled down towards belts, cuff links, watches and bags, Bata is going the other way.

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