Havaianas is the story of a shoe that had to become a brand to survive.
The ubiquitous flip-flop, now seen almost as a national symbol of Brazil, was launched in 1962 and, thanks to its durability, comfort and cheapness, soon became a huge success. By the late 80s, Alpargatas – the company responsible – was selling 100m pairs a year and controlled 90% of the domestic market.
However, Brazil’s growing economic success signalled a downturn in the fortunes of the cheap and cheerful sandal. As the population gradually became richer, Havaianas was seen as the footwear of the poor and, therefore, non-aspirational. Sales dropped dramatically, down to 65m by 1993. Alpargatas wasn’t consoled by the fact that this still meant the product was profitable. It realised drastic action was required to reverse the trend and so a brand was born.
The revamp occurred on several fronts. The choice of styles was widened dramatically, from two to 25, in a variety of colours with vibrant packaging to match. By selling newer, more expensive styles in boxes, customers were encouraged to see them more as shoes than humble flip-flops. Cheaper versions were retained, but new ones came with a hefty mark-up of 600%. Simultaneously, the company embarked on an ambitious marketing programme, driven by a series of celebrity-led ads that emphasised the youthful irreverence of the brand alongside traditional Brazilian national characteristics of happiness, sensuality and joie de vivre.
The strategy chimed with Brazil’s growing economic success and accompanying sense of self-confidence. By the end of the 90s, more than 105m Havaianas were being sold every year: the decline had been reversed. This turnaround in fortunes allowed Alpargatas to look abroad for expansion, first into neighbouring Latin America and subsequently into the lucrative European and North American markets.
In the early 2000s, Havaianas began gracing the feet of the likes of actress Jennifer Aniston and surfer Kelly Slater, while appearances on the runway at a Jean-Paul Gaultier show and in the 2003 Oscars goody bag all added to the brand’s growing international momentum. In 2007, the brand launched in New York and the following year it was made available in Paris. In both instances, it was sold only in upmarket retail outlets; prices ranged from $16 at the entry-level to $200 for those who prefer their flip-flops encrusted with Swarovski crystals.
While ensuring that it does not forget its core customer base in Brazil (where 94% of the population either own or have owned a pair) the company has recently expanded into India, where similar footwear is already popular. Over the past few years the brand has also cautiously diversified, with the introduction of a well-received tote bag and other accessories. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil promises to make all things associated with the country hugely commercial and Havaianas, with its close identification with Brazil and its carefree lifestyle, should be poised to take full advantage.
Did you know?
Havaianas means "Hawaiians" in English. The name was chosen because in the early 60s Hawaii represented the dream destination for most holidaymakers.
As the leading brand in the sector, Havaianas were frequently copied. Company ads warned of these "fajuta" (fake) sandals, and the word fajuta became so widely used that it was included in Brazilian Portuguese dictionaries.
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