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baring my soul after baring my sole.

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For our integrated marketing communications assignment, my schoolmates and I examined how TOMS Shoes employed cause marketing as their main vehicle of publicity, and how this eventually led to sales.

There was no better way than to actually practise what the company preaches as one of their key annual activities – to go one day without shoes. At least, that’s what it challenges all its existing and potential consumers. TOMS’ business strategy is simple – you buy a pair of shoes from them and they will give another away to an underprivileged child in a third-world country. A remarkable and novel idea, really.

In our detailed analysis of this tactic, we’ve discovered that there are brilliant brains behind TOMS, from its founder Blake Mycoskie, to its sales staff, and to its interns (better known as Agents of Change – ostentatious but unique no doubt). And we’ve observed that they’ve left no stone unturned – everything that can be used has been used and their marketing strategy is one of the best we’ve seen of any footwear company, by far. It’s almost fool-proof and fail-proof; it’s so comprehensive that we’ve struggled to make recommendations to improve it. We take our hats off to TOMS Shoes.

That was until two of us (Melodie Lee and I) actually decided to go barefoot in Singapore for a day. And so it was, our very own one day without shoes. It was then we discovered the few weaknesses of such a tactic. I will share bits of it as I record my thoughts of this radical experience.

Attempting an against-the-norm feat is always easier when you do it with someone else. Melodie and I felt somewhat comforted and empowered by each other’s participation; knowing that we weren’t going to do this alone provided an impetus for the actual deed. I left home excitedly and I was curious to see the different reactions I’d receive from strangers and bystanders alike.

Coincidentally, I left home with my sister and met my mother en-route to the bus terminal; both thought that I was crazy and had my safety at the forefront of their minds. And as expected, my sister wasn’t too keen on walking beside me simply because it was weird. “So paiseh”, she stated. Funnily enough, that actually affirmed my decision more than deterred it.

I tried to behave as normally as I could. Of course I would avoid tough, dirty or wet terrain but I did not walk awkwardly or in embarrassment. I like doing radical things once in a while anyway, as my youths and peers would know, so standing out from the crowd wasn’t something that was all together foreign to me.

I arrived at our meeting point in Forum, drank a small serving of Caramel Latte from Coffeebean and discussed how we were going to capture people’s responses on film. And on my own, I intentionally recorded as many of these steps as I could through Twitter. After all, it was through social media that this campaign spread like a virus. As expected, I received a flurry of responses almost immediately on both Facebook and Twitter, from both friends and acquaintances. And just as I had expected, the attention waned as dramatically as it had built up as the day progressed, despite my regular pictorial updates.

Hence it leaves me to conclude that a wholesale dependence on social media has its own limitations. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a celebrity with an enormous reputation, but isn’t viral marketing all about the word-of-mouth from the man on the ground? It’s short-lived at best; my network’s interest in my adventure sustained for a couple of hours and my own interest was roused for a day at most. My mini-campaign was as current and newsworthy as the next 160-character tweet by a teenager about where he was or what she was doing. How effective could this method be for the long-run then?

I hereby propose that social media is only good for initial awareness but not prolonged interest.

One talking point in my day without shoes was when I nearly lost my right big toe. I am so used to everyday-walking that it slipped my mind the importance of literally watching my next step. It was a near-death experience (haha pardon the drama-mama) and my odynophobia caused me to visualise a severed foot. I still cringe at the thought of that near-mishap and I understood why Crocs encountered a safety issue with their footwear – people are negligent because they take things for granted and when they think they can depend on what they are used to (can’t help but to think of Psalm 119:105).

There are only two retailers in Singapore that sell TOMS Shoes and we had to visit one of course. It was a disappointing experience to say the least. We all thought that this could be one of the greatest flaw in this otherwise great company. A retail shop is quite possibly the most appropriate touch point for a fashion product (to see and touch the actual shoe and try it for sizing) and interacting with the sales staff left a horrible taste in our mouths; they were apathetic, ignorant, uninvolved, not helpful and unnecessarily rude.

While this reflects more badly on the reputation of the shop, it indirectly impacts a consumer’s attitude towards TOMS; you cannot help but think that TOMS did not conduct a meticulous screening of their franchisees or provide them with sufficient product training. Their unacceptable service became a fundamental failure in representing the goodwill that TOMS have existed to create all this while. After all, we’ve observed that intimate interaction with consumers is one of the keys to their outstanding business model.

We started our barefoot adventure at 3pm but by 6pm the novelty of this activity had already worn thin on us. We were no longer amused by people’s stares or consciously thought about what we were doing. I asked Melodie, “Are you even thinking about the children in Africa without shoes to wear?” Our answers to that question was synonymously negative. Perhaps we were inadequately prepared for this activity, throwing ourselves in without much fanfare (like posters or tee shirts) or perhaps we didn’t do it with an entourage. But honestly, the thought of doing this for the less-fortunate and under-privileged probably crossed our minds only once, and for a fleeting moment.

While those kids suffered from inevitable abrasions, we sampled invited attention; while those kids struggled to go to school, we savoured what it felt like to do something cool; while those kids survived on a single pair of shoes for years, we stepped into shops that sold enough shoes to last a village for years. How effective then, is this campaign to actually help those kids?

I began to question the integrity of this apparently fantastic movement and I couldn’t help but to conclude that cause marketing should only be employed for the short-term and not to be exploited for the long-term.

I’ve written these thoughts on my way to school and during lecture itself. Honestly, while going without shoes was fun while it lasted, I cannot be bothered anymore about how this makes me feel or what message it sends out because the only entity that benefits from this seemingly out-of-this-world initiative is the company itself. Based on my experience today, I scribbled down five recommendations that may make TOMS Shoes a tad bit more successful and perhaps, less suspect. We will propose them at our presentation next week.

As with many things in life that the world offers us as a tradeoff for satisfaction, it can feel good at the start but it is still hugely inadequate and empty eventually. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”, as King Solomon famously philosophised. The words of the Psalmist Asaph resonates in my head: “You’re all I want in heaven! You’re all I want on earth!” (Psalm 73:25, The Message Bible.)

Oh, the temporal happiness of earthly pursuits and the heavenly void that we all need God to help us fill!

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