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Strategy

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MAGAZINE | JUN 21, 2014

"We needed to reinvent the way we do business, because if we didnt change, somebody else would have come in" Harkirat Singh,
Managing director, Woodland
CORPORATE: STRATEGY

The Big Kick-Off


Armed with innovative products and brand extensions in niche adventure and outdoors categories, Harkirat Singh wants
consumers to see Woodland in a new light
VIKAS KUMAR

On Gurudwara Road in central Delhis bustling and crowded Karol Bagh market, it is easy to miss the
nondescript, grey four-storey building that houses Aero Groups corporate office. Entering the reception,

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you feel as if you have been transported to a trading house from the 1980s. The ageing paint and
weathered wood paneling gives the sense of a company steeped in its past, nowhere close to the youthful
and vibrant image of Woodland, the popular homegrown adventure brand it represents. That is, until you
step into the cramped but modern elevator that takes you up to the first floor. Here, gleaming workspaces,
open layouts, wall cabinets whose doors cleverly double up as writing boards all give out a fresh vibe of a
company gearing up for the future
. Clearly, Woodland is a brand thats being refreshed for a new innings. The
transformational process has been underway for some time now, says MD
Harkirat Singh. We needed to reinvent the way we do business, because if
we didnt change, somebody else would have come in, he says.

Since the new


innovations rely on
technology,
Woodland has
taken the licensing
route on the
specific application
it uses them for

Since its launch in 1992, Woodland has single-handedly built a small category
outdoor lifestyle and grown it through a mix of sharply targeted
advertising for its young buyers, community building and events and alliances
with environmental organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the
United Nations Childrens Fund. In doing so, it has cleverly straddled an
expanding adventure gear market. Woodland connects with the outdoor
lifestyle image without being dependent on it, agrees Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, a retail
consulting firm. Now, Singh and his team are upping the ante. Preparations have been underway for a
couple of years: a new line of innovative products has been unveiled and the brand extended into
specialised categories within the adventure and outdoors space. Take, for instance, shoes and garments
used in mountaineering, trekking, cycling and equipment for rappelling. The idea was to address the needs
of entry-level users and not necessarily professional climbers and trekkers to begin with. Some products
need safety approvals and we may not go for them right now, points out Singh. For sourcing such products,
it has tied up with global manufacturers. A few of these products have already been introduced, such as
GoPro outdoor cameras and climbing stick sourced from an Italian company, and trekking umbrellas from a
German supplier.
The initial response has been encouraging, prompting Woodland to work on a plan to introduce five to ten
new products each year. Right now, I am holding a Woodland shoe with Gore-Tex lining and a Vibram sole,
which will cost you only Rs 8,000 a pair, says Singh, who is down south visiting the companys Kochi store.
The point Singh wants to make is this: Woodland makes shoes that are comparable with global brands.
But old-time sellers such as Avinash Kamath of Mumbais Avi Industries havent heard of these yet. He
remembers the companys traditional range being perceived as rugged but bulky and unsuitable for climbing
mountains. Their shoes are 50% heavier compared with European brands, he says. Started by his father
in the 70s, the business is run by Kamath, a seasoned mountaineer. Stores such as Avi, Adventure18 in
Delhi and Cliff Climbers in Dehradun have been the go-to places for gear for professional or early
mountaineers. They are also the key influencers for the category, which grows mainly by word-of-mouth.
Kamath is pleasantly surprised when told about Woodlands advanced range. If they have such products,
they should be promoting them. Its exactly what Woodland is trying to do with marketing and innovation.

Brand push
From selling shoes to adding apparel (extending into a more formal line of wear under the Woods brand), the
Rs 1,000-crore group has come a long way from its origins as a supplier of finished leather uppers to

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footwear manufacturers across the globe. An impulsive decision to replicate a design that the Aero Group
was manufacturing for an Italian client and test it in the Karol Bagh market led to the creation of a brand that
is now available in 4,000 multi-brand outlets and boasts of 450 exclusive showrooms in around 200 cities.
In the past few years, Woodland has been clocking 13% to 18% growth (see: On a firm footing), compared
with 20% for the overall footwear and apparel market. But Singh is in no hurry to grow any faster. Though he
wants the company, which earns 60% of its revenues from footwear, to be seen as a more entrenched and
focused player in the outdoor wear and adventure gear business, which currently accounts for a negligible
share of revenues.
The reason the adventure sports market is gradually picking up pace in India on the back of corporate
outbound programmes and a general sense of awareness through television. Trekking, climbing and rapelling
have been most popular in that regard. Its a category that barely existed among the most passionate of
adventure lovers trekkers, mountain hikers and climbing enthusiasts. The outdoor category is a huge
universe. We are addressing only a small part, says Singh. And the company is doing that by creating
awareness of the category, celebrating everyday heroes. Woodlands brand ambassadors include people
such as Loveraj Singh Dharmshaktu, an assistant commandant in the Border Security Force who has
climbed Mt Everest five times; Planning Commission employee and ace endurance runner Arun Bhardwaj;
Deeya Suzannah Bajaj, who at 14 was the first and youngest Indian to go kayaking in the Arctic Ocean in
Greenland; and Archana Sardana, who is the countrys first woman B.A.S.E. jumper, skydiver and scuba
diving instructor. Woodland, in fact, developed special gear a flappy bird-like jacket for Sardana for
B.A.S.E. jumping, considered among the riskiest sports since it involves leaping off buildings and bridges
with a small parachute.
Apart from using images and videos of these ambassadors and sharing details of their achievements on its
website, Woodland also leverages them as field testers for its ongoing product development and design
process. Dharmshaktu, who has been tapped for his feedback on a new range of jackets, has also been
hired as a consultant for an upcoming adventure zone being created on the outskirts of Delhi. Located on a
100-acre property on the Faridabad-Gurgaon Road at the foothills of the Aravallis, Singh says the zone,
which is likely to be ready in six months, will serve as an events hub to connect with its audience and
demonstrate its newer range of mountain gear.
True to its Timberland-inspired positioning, Woodland has stayed consistent over the years about what it
stands for rugged, outdoorsy and for people with a desire to explore and seek adventure.
Communication, too, has remained largely consistent with the brands core values. Over the years, its
been the most well-defined brand Ive worked on, says Tanul Bhartiya, senior VP at Lowe Lintas &
Partners, the agency thats been handling the brand since its launch in India, now under division Karishma
Advertising. While Woodlands advertising is largely print-centric, over the years, there has been a greater
push towards digital marketing to stay connected with its target group 18-24 year olds. The rethink
process was kicked off four years ago, when Singh enrolled for a two-week Taking Marketing Digital course
at Harvard Business School with Amol Dhillon, vice-president, strategy and planning. That led to a digital
marketing push for the brand that continues over popular platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and
YouTube. Woodland now has 3.2 million fans on Facebook and 6,000 followers on Twitter. Its in-house
social media content team is currently working on a Woodland TV app for iOS and Android, and a quarterly
digital adventure magazine modelled along the lines of Redbulls Red Bulletin. Brands have to be their own
content creators, says Dhillon.
All these initiatives assume importance as the larger market for adventure and sports goods opens up in the
country.

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Bring it on
Though not in direct competition, Woodland will now have to contend with newer players entering its turf,
even as older rivals cede ground. French sports and adventure goods retailer Decathlon is now available in
India its Quechua label is a popular brand among mountaineers and Woodland is watching its progress
carefully. On familiar turf, Woodland has managed to ward off a larger threat from Timberland, the brand its
said to be inspired from. The popular New England (US) brand, which changed ownership in 2011 to North
Carolina-based VF Corporation, is represented in India by Reliance Brands. The resemblance has been
uncanny right down to the logo. But with 14 points of sale that include eight brand stores and six shop-inshops, the iconic brand known for its signature Yellow Boot has settled to peacefully coexist with
Woodland after filing for intellectual property (IP) infringement and losing the case in 2012 as the latter was
the first mover in India. In what should be music to Singhs ears, Darshan Mehta, CEO, Reliance Brands,
points out that Reliance is unlikely to renew Timberlands brand licensing agreement for India that comes to
an end by mid-2015. We had already stopped expanding [Timberland outlets] a year back, adds Mehta.
Woodland has been aggressively adding 60-70 stores every year, and this year will see similar numbers,
Singh says. We are more conservative in our new store additions since we do not follow a franchisee
model. With a footprint extending to towns such as Thodupuzha (Kerala), Ambikapur (Chattisgarh), Barnala
(Punjab) and Hamirpur (UP), Singh is confident of introducing new lines to every corner of the country.
But it wont be a cakewalk for Woodland. Professional users of outdoor gear arent really Woodlands core

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customers: they depend on globally established brands that are specialists in each line of adventure goods.
Hardcore mountaineers, for instance, swear by brands such as Quechua, Merrell, Lafuma, North Face,
Mountain Hardwear and Millet, even though they are far more expensive in the Rs 10,000-Rs 14,000
range on average. Also, leading brands use the Gore-Tex waterproof leather treatment or its equivalent,
which is a must for professional climbers, who often climb in snow. Similarly, Vibram outsoles, with their
non-slippery grip, are de rigueur in trekking and climbing shoes. I would never recommend [Woodland
shoes] in their current state for high-altitude trekking. These shoes are very heavy, says a mountaineer
who runs her own adventure sports firm. Atul Anand, director, Cliff Climbers says, Woodlands shoes are
not at all comparable to technical products. Shoes are among the three elements of a good trek along with
a light and well-designed backpack and the right kind of clothes.
Its clear that even as the brand ambassador programme is creating the right buzz for its potential and
current customers, there are enough gaps in this sphere. Many of these influencers arent informed about or
convinced of its professional line of products.
Singh is aware of the challenges that the brand faces and its not surprising that hes looking to up the ante
by focusing on innovation and evolving their products to appeal to the serious adventurer.

By design
It all happened when Singh, who was already thinking of ways to innovate, heard about IDEOs design
innovation course at Stanford University. Last year, Singh and Dhillon attended the intensive five-day
programme, where they picked up lessons on consumer centricity through IDEOs famed design thinking
framework. As part of the course module, Singh and Dhillon had to spend time inside Los Angeles
International Airport chatting up 20 passengers at random to understand their needs and concerns relating
to airline services, boarding and check-in procedures. That module was for US carrier JetBlue, which had
roped in IDEO to design a service offering that would appeal to frequent travellers and those passengers
willing to pay more and generate new revenue without alienating its core customers. Through this
exercise, the duo picked up cues on designing a better service experience for the Woodland brand back
home. It changed our way of thinking. We came back with an open mind to talk to our customers, he says.
Back in India, Singh was quick to organise brainstorming sessions for each vertical of the business, from
marketing to store sales and from manufacturing to design. Product ideas were discussed, so were ways to
improve store productivity. We asked our store sales people to talk to customers about what matters to
them and use that understanding to help us improve our offerings and service, says Singh. As it turned out,
the feedback was that customers were looking for something revolutionary.
Armed with this new insight, Singh got down to raising the bar for Woodland. It began with technology, as

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Woodland roped in geeks to introduce new features into its products. Over the past six months, the
company has rolled out a slew of new products as part of the initiative. One such product is a shoe that
allows blind people to trek. Another one, developed with the help of former NASA scientists, is a batteryoperated jacket with heating pads that regulate temperature on long treks and sub-zero climes. Then theres
the ResQ jacket, which is embedded with the RECCO directional radar reflector chip for precise location
search in case its wearer gets caught in an avalanche. The signals from the chip can be detected up to
depths of 30 metre below ice, and it runs without a battery. There are warm grip shoes to ward off frostbite
at temperatures up to -20 degrees Celsius, powered by a lithium-ion battery and a warming coil fitted into
the outsole. Woodland has also come out with outdoor bags fitted with solar powered chargers for mobile
phones and other gadgets and is recycling plastic into fibre to make garments. Some of these ideas also
came from the technology and outdoor sports-focused Consumer Electronics Show, an annual exhibition
held every year in Las Vegas to showcase innovation in consumer technologies, and Ispo Munich, the
worlds largest platform for young entrepreneurs in the sporting goods business.
Woodland is also backing up the new products with a campaign scripted by Lowe Lintas & Partners, titled
Live to tell the tale, which showcases gear for adventurers to survive the harsh outdoors. The campaign,
comprising outdoor hoardings, print ads and TV commercials, revolves around outdoor enthusiasts being
rescued from tough situations.
Since the new innovations rely on technology, Woodland has taken the licensing route on the specific
applications it uses them for. For example, the technology for the ResQ jacket is owned by Swedish
company RECCO. Woodland pays it a royalty, plus a percentage of sales if the volumes are larger. These
products are priced much higher and meant for specific or extreme uses. The jackets with heating pads, for
example, are priced between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 each. These products are highlighters for our
range. We dont look for huge volumes on them, says Singh. So the reflector radar jackets launched last
season (winter) at a similar price band sold around 7,000 units, compared with the bestselling jacket, priced
around Rs 4,000-Rs 6,000, which sold up to two lakh units in a year.
These and the mainline products are manufactured across four locations Baddi and Paonta Sahib for
shoes, Dehradun and, recently, Roorkee for jackets and shoes. Jackets are also sourced from Bangladesh,
while some products are sourced from factories in Vietnam and China. With an installed capacity of
500,000 pairs of shoes 200,000 pieces of apparel each month, the groups manufacturing employs
advanced and more precision-oriented techniques now to cater to the more demanding domestic market and
an export business growing at 35% as well.
Singh, however, is unwilling to quantify the impact that new additions will bring to the business, even as he
is banking on Woodlands extensive reach for these products to piggyback on. We have real depth in the
market with our store network. This gives us an easy route to bring in new products and expand our
portfolio, he says.
Harminder Sahni, founder, Wazir Advisors, a Gurgaon-based retail consultancy firm, feels that Woodland
has stayed true to its original values, which has served the company well. Theyve managed to grow and
yet not spread themselves too thin, says Sahni. Only time will tell if the new bets will pay off. For now,
Singh has no plans to outgrow the office building that has seen the brand prosper. We have become very
comfortable in this zone, he says. That may change when competition comes knocking, but for now Singh is
happy staying in the woods.
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