It’s the rebranding success story, so what’s next for the once humble Havaianas, asks John Rumsey?

On an underground space designed by a leading architect on the ritziest street in Latin America’s most fashion-conscious city is a brand-new store. It’s on first name terms with near neighbours Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton and has pulled off the remarkable feat of proving a hit both with the elite, who like to sit inside on its curving trunk bench clutching their beribboned poodles, and the tattooed youth who flirt across its spacious interior. It sells little more than that most humble of items, the flip-flop. You can buy them there for less than $10. You can even make your own designs. The city is São Paulo; the street is Oscar Freire; and the shop, of course, is Havaianas.

The Havaianas is no run-of-the-mill flip-flop. It is Brazil’s best known fashion export. Indeed, 20 million pairs were sold abroad in 2007, says Carla Schmitzberger, director of the sandals business unit at parent company Alpargatas in São Paulo. 

The Havaianas is renowned for its splashy colors, its sometimes cheeky, party-loving style and its friendly flexibility. “People have a very strong, emotional connection to Havaianas. They take to it with carinho [affection],” Schmitzberger says. “We think that it stands for joy, freedom, simplicity.”

It was not always thus. In 1993, parent Alpargatas came close to admitting its flip-flop was a flop, says Beto Guimarães de Almeida, creative director at Interbrand in São Paulo. Sales in Brazil were dominated by the lowest social classes and Havaianas sold in mom and pop stores and cheap supermarkets, mostly in two unassuming positions: by washing products (maids would wear them in the laundry) and by building materials so that construction workers (who liked their durability) could locate them. 

There were just four, plain colours. “They don’t smell and the strap doesn’t tear,” went the admirably practical advertising. Wearing Havaianas had less than zero social cachet; stories are legion that in the north-east of the country wearers of Havaianas were turned away at the cinema door for bringing down the tone. 

Havaianas have come a long way since. These days, they grace the feet of cinema’s stars, including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and pop up on the cover of fashion magazines. They like to stay in some of the best hotels in the world. “You’ll find them as a gift when you check into that luxury hotel that’s in all the magazines, somewhere like Bora Bora,” says de Almeida. They have even made it into the Oscars’ basket, a grab-bag of goodies for the stars. 

Getting into the basket is, of course, not fortuitous but the result of intensive work. Behind the scenes, Alpargatas has effected an extremely-difficult-to-pull-off brand repositioning, says de Almeida. 

From 1988 sales started to decline, admits Schmitzberger. When Alpargatas investigated, they found that high income groups were wearing Havaianas indoors, but leaving them at the porch. They were embarrassed to wear them out, she says.

To upgrade the image, the flip-flops were moved into better locations in stores and put in boxes, says Schmitzberger. Advertising campaigns were also overhauled: once promoted by the slapstick comedians of the popular, trashy shows of Brazil’s ubiquitous TV broadcaster, Globo, sophisticated actors were instead picked and the product was billed as artistic. 

By the end of the 90s, with success assured at home, Havaianas were ready for export, kicking off with Australia and moving into north America, Europe and more recently Asia and the Middle East. Havaianas successfully associated themselves with positive Latin characteristics, such as sensuality (without being vulgar), youth (without being exclusive) and joviality (without being flippant), notes de Almeida. Nowadays, the brand works with the elite of international Brazilian names, like heart-throb Rodrigo Santoro from Lost and Love Actually and the international supermodel Gisele Bündchen. 

The next stage of development for the brand is delicate. The main aim is to drive up international sales of 20 million, which is small beer compared to the 171 million pairs sold in Brazil, says Schmitzberger. 

For now, Havaianas is riding high, but fashion is a fickle friend and there are other Brazilian flip-flops that are perhaps more anatomical and comfortable, such as Ipanema, says de Almeida, who nevertheless believes the brand is successfully reinventing itself. Constant innovation is key and Havaianas launches new lines once or twice a year and has limited editions for special occasions, such as the World Cup, says Schmitzberger.

A second plank of the strategy is to capitalise on success by rolling out compatible new products that, “maintain the vitality and freshness of the original product,” says Schmitzberger. The firm will only roll out products that meet the core brand elements of style, value and simplicity, she emphasises. 

The result is a new range of bags for men and women with a colorful rubber trim and a design based on observations of couriers, who tend to sling their bags across their shoulders. With its echoes of the sandal, it could prove a hit on the beach and has the same Havaianas characteristics of joviality and lightness, says de Almeida, but cautions that it’s too early to say whether it will enjoy the same success. 

Alpargatas is also launching its own concept shops — the one on Oscar Freire is its second — to act as a showcase for new products. The stores are a vehicle to generate buzz and keep Havaianas in the limelight. They offer the entire Havaianas product range and have become a focal and talking point, says Schmitzberger.

Keeping in the spotlight and brand building with various associated products will be the key to Havaianas future success. Once an embarrassment only fit to be worn behind closed doors or for the domestic help, Havaianas flip-flops are now a must-have celebrity accessory. And, more importantly, as long as the rich and famous wear them, consumers will buy them. Getting them onto the feet of fickle film stars was a fantastic achievement; keeping them there will be even greater.

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