The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Starting this year, Cole Haan will team up with Mercedes-Benz as co-title sponsors of the Mercedes-Benz–Cole Haan Cup. This will be the first time the illustrious global lifestyle brand has collaborated with the iconic German marque to co-sponsor the event.

In an exclusive interview with The Journal, President and Representative Director of Cole Haan in Japan Gregory C. Dinges speaks openly about the company’s past, present, and future brand strategy in Japan. Dinges also speaks about his enthusiasm for golf and his high expectations for the upcoming tournament.

Why did you decide to be co-title sponsor of this tournament?
Cole Haan is a great brand, started in 1928—so we are approaching 100 years. This is our 21st year in Japan. We have a great heritage that we are very proud of but, equally, when we became an independent company, we had a vision to build on that heritage.

So I think that, as we go through that process here in Japan, being a co-title sponsor of this illustrious tournament is a great opportunity to share that vision with people and, most importantly, the people in the chambers of commerce—whether they are Americans, Canadians, Europeans, or Japanese—many of whom are already consumers of our brand.

How does the tie-up with Mercedes-Benz complement your brand?
From a brand positioning point of view, we are taking Cole Haan—a heritage brand—to new places. Part of our new vision for the company is that we are a brand for extraordinary people. That’s not meant to be snobbish, because everybody can, and should, be extraordinary.

So we really seek to deliver a product to extraordinary individuals, and we want to be passionate advocates for the extraordinary. We think that customers of Mercedes-Benz, obviously, fit that bill.

Furthermore, the real core of our brand positioning is this elegant collision, if you will, of fashion with performance and innovation, and that is just a great fit for Mercedes-Benz—who produce very beautiful and elegant performance-driving machines—as well.

Can you say something about the community aspect of this tournament?
Golf is a great game that you can do individually and also in teams. Obviously, the great Ryder Cup-esque nature of this competition between North Americans and Europeans—but in an Asian setting—goes to the heart of our DNA and to the core of much of the business community here. What’s really great, though, is that we can bring together so many people from both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific with this event.

What can you tell us about your golfing experience and expectations for the tournament?
I aspire to be an amazing golfer. My father developed golf courses as a property developer when I was a child—so I’ve been around the game my whole life. Although I’m a pretty good hacker, I have no excuse to have a lack of practice or experience. Still, I’m looking forward to the tournament, but I don’t think I’m going to be challenging anybody for the trophy. I’ll be there having a good time and, along with our partners from Mercedes-Benz, I’ll be there to celebrate the winners.

Briefly, what can you tell us about Cole Haan’s expansion plans both here and abroad?
We’ve got plans in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America that are exciting, but our biggest growth opportunities are in Asia. And Japan is the heart of our Asian business—as I said, we’ve been here for nearly 21 years.

We opened the first new concept or flagship store, anywhere in the world, here in Ginza, Tokyo. So Japan—where we have 70 stores—is a crucial market for Cole Haan. China, South Korea, Southeast Asia, are all going to be very crucial markets for us, too.

How does Cole Haan define and distinguish itself?
We think the real defining edge for Cole Haan, which has a focus on footwear and lifestyle brands—handbags and the like—is that our products are both beautiful and functional. These are some of our newest products: the ZeroGrand—the lightest casual dress-shoe anybody will sell you.

They are the most comfortable, the most flexible, and the most cushioned. Some are very conservative while others are very funky; they are all very fashionable products.

The other thing about Cole Haan—and we think this is reasonably unique to us within Japan, and globally—is that we try and define the brand very broadly. Cole Haan is not just a brand for women; it has a huge men’s business. It’s not just a brand for old or young; we have consumers across the whole age spectrum. It’s not just a brand for the rich or middle-class; we have consumers from every economic [bracket] as well.

What else can you tell us about Cole Haan’s brand vision?
Part of our brand vision that we are really excited about, and that we are going to bring to market in the media and in the storytelling that we do with consumers in our stores, is our new marketing position, which is: from Manhattan to Maine.

We are a very American brand, and those are very American geographies. Manhattan is the heart of New York City. Maine is where a lot of our heritage is; it’s a lot of where the US footwear industry began. It’s very rugged, very outdoorsy, but also very preppy and elegant, and a great place for a weekend getaway.

Within that, you’ve got five subcategories—in the Manhattan part, for instance, we have uptown and downtown. We feel that our product is great in the boardroom and great for the twenty-something entrepreneur with the tech startup.

People wear a different uniform to work everyday, but we’ve got something for both uptown and downtown customers. The same thing on the more casual side—we have products that we think are great if you’re in the Hamptons or if you’re hiking Mt. Fuji. We’ve got something that’s just preppy: great penny-loafers. And we have various lines that you can wear on the weekend with jeans if you’re a student.

So we like to think that our brand goes from Manhattan to Maine, and golf is a great fit as well—a lot of golfers are Manhattan-ites, Tokyo-type business people who like to get away and do some golfing out in a more beautiful, rugged setting, and they want to have fashion, lifestyle footwear, and a pair of options that work in both locations. And we feel that golf is a sport that fits a Manhattan-to-Maine, urban-to-weekend-getaway, and out-of-town positioning.

Can you elaborate on your expansion strategy in Japan and the region?
The Japanese market is very close to my heart. I’ve been doing business in Japan since 1989. I think it’s a great market—starting with the people. Japanese people, culture, and history are magnificent—and they are great hosts and consumers, as they love to shop.

What’s more, we are seeing so many inbound tourists—many from greater China but also Southeast Asia and elsewhere—that like to come here. So Japan creates the opportunity to speak not just to the Japanese market, but also to Asia.

As such, Japan is our second-largest business; we grew this business significantly—top line—last year. And we look to grow a similar amount next year. So we view Japan, for Cole Haan, as a growth opportunity and a place where we can do business and have influence on consumers throughout Southeast Asia and Asia–Pacific.