By Mylena Vazquez
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This ultra-short narrative, questionably attributed to Ernest Hemingway, tells an entire tale and takes the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions—in only six words. These types of succinct stories are known as flash fiction, but they’re not limited to just text on a page.
In fact, the most interesting and effective form of flash fiction, I would argue, are the still images brands use on social media to tell their and their customers’ stories. One such company that unlocked the power of static storytelling in the early days of Instagram is Sperry—an almost century-old boat shoes company.
The Sperry story
In early 2015, as part of a major overhaul of their branding, Sperry launched “Odysseys Await,” a campaign aimed at repositioning the brand in millennial minds as cool, fun, and exciting. Naturally, the campaign was imbued with nautical imagery, but the company shifted the setting from predictable yacht club to untamed open ocean.
With taglines like “Try living for a living,” “There’s no truth without the dare,” and “The best stories are written with your feet,” Sperry targeted millennials who felt disconnected from the brand and its then-orthodox associations. But the brand started out as anything but ordinary. Its founder, Paul A. Sperry, an innovator and outdoorsman, patented the non-slip Sperry sole after slipping on his boat and falling overboard during a solo sailing trip.
The Odysseys Await campaign was a success with the brand’s new target audience. Mono, the advertising agency responsible for the ads, reported that the campaign resulted in a 12% increase in sales, a 30% rise in brand awareness, and a 59% improvement in brand perception. Some of the photos from this campaign were posted on Instagram as well and received high engagement. But they weren’t necessarily the photos that performed best.
#Topsiding with Sperry customers
Almost every Sperry post during this time, whether company-created or user-generated, bore the hashtag #Topsiding. According to Sperry, “#TOPSIDING is a state of mind, on shore or at sea. It’s what you do and how you feel when you’re wearing Sperry Top-Siders.” The company incentivized customers to continue sharing photos using this tag by holding weekly contests where they reposted some of the most unique and adventurous photos. With this tactic, Sperry changed the idea of the boat shoe as a mere product to the boat shoe as a full-blown experience.
As it turns out, customers had a lot of great experiences to share. User @smaller18 sent in a photo of his Top-Siders clad legs hanging over a Grand Canyon cliff. Contest winner @fairwaylife submitted a photo of his navy pair overlooking the Amalfi Coast. User @emmelinewang shared a shot of her Sperrys literally swinging over San Francisco. Sperry reposted all of these and more.
Especially in these early days of social media, the static image really was the most impactful storytelling medium, and Instagram was the best venue. With a smartphone snapshot, a regular person could become producer, marketer, and star. This accessibility, together with Sperry’s commitment to casting its customer as the protagonist of the story, gave rise not just to a legion of loyal customers, but also to micro-influencers who served as advocates for the brand. The photos they were taking had inherent universal reach and universal appeal, especially because it was real customers who were producing them for the brand—for free.
Odysseys Await, and so does success
User engagement with the Odysseys Await campaign was just as strong as the #TOPSIDING effort, if not stronger. Some of these everyday users started to contribute more frequently, their images becoming higher quality and more adventurous. These customers became the micro-influencers who drove the success of the Odysseys Await campaign. One of the most popular of these micro-influencers, @slavatheshrimp, took his Sperrys all around the world, photographing them like a traveling gnome. Armed with just a camera, his photos told the stories of his adventures at a sprawling, majestic tree-lined lake; soaring over the Golden Gate Bridge; and perched above the skyscrapers of San Francisco. His photos remain some of Sperry’s most liked Instagram posts to date.
This organic content creation and word-of-mouth advertising allowed Sperry to completely reposition their brand in the minds of their younger target audience. They allowed the customer to become the narrator and tell a story that was authentic, unique, and aspirational. Instead of Sperry dictating the narrative, they allowed everyday customers the opportunity to speak on their behalf. By choosing to share static images that featured Sperry shoes prominently in unexpected locations, Sperry allowed the wider target audience to form a natural connection between the brand and a sense of exhilaration. Most importantly, it allowed the customer to insert themselves and their own spirit into the Sperry adventure.
When engaging with a brand account, do you prefer punchy static images or longer video content? Which of the two do you consider the more effective storytelling method?