How Crocs made the leap from pandemic preference to Gen Z fashion statement

Donning foam slip-ons seemed like the natural choice when people were housebound during the pandemic, and comfort and convenience were the priority. But even after lockdown measures were lifted, consumers are continuing to rock their Crocs, spurring the footwear company to achieve a 200 percent increase in sales since 2019. 

Was Crocs’ revival a stroke of lockdown luck or the fruits of a smartly strategized global growth plan? 

“The pandemic contributed to our success, but was not the only reason for our success,” explains Andrew Rees, Chief Executive Officer, Crocs Inc. “Our success was built on a strategy to deliver long-term sustainable growth. We listen to our consumers and have harnessed the trends of casualization and personalization, all at an accessible price point. We identified that the desire for greater comfort was not a fading trend, it is here to stay.” 

Jing Daily spoke with Crocs Inc. CEO Andrew Rees and Crocs President Michelle Poole to find out how the company has stayed in step with changing consumer trends and inadvertently sparked a Gen Z cultural phenomenon in China.

From boat deck to global fashion catwalks 

Crocs celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2022 and is currently one of the largest and fastest-growing casual footwear companies in the world. Originally inspired by a boating clog, the signature shoe champions comfort, versatility and fun with its chunky silhouette and light-weight, water-proof Croslite material.

But the footwear brand wasn’t always perceived as “cool.” When Rees joined Crocs as President in 2014, and later became CEO in 2017, the company was suffering from strategic missteps in an attempt to counteract its “uncool” image. As part of Crocs’ brand transformation, Rees unapologetically put the focus back on the Classic Clog design and expanded Crocs’ message of comfort to embrace individual empowerment.

Andrew Rees, Chief Executive Officer, Crocs Inc., has been building clog relevance around the world since 2014. Photo: Crocs

“We set out to build brand and clog relevance across the globe, allowing us to develop a loyal fanbase of consumers in key markets,” says Rees of the brand transformation. “We launched our ‘Come As You Are’ campaign celebrating the uniqueness of individuals and inspiring people to be comfortable in their own shoes. We also began the era of collaborations, working with celebrities, designers, and brands to build relevance and reach new consumers.”

Crocs advocacy of comfort — as well as personalization through its Jibbitz charms, which can be plugged into the clogs’ ventilation holes — found a serendipitous match with the post-pandemic fashion zeitgeist. Gen Z jumped on board, as did celebrities like Post Malone and Justin Beiber, and fashion houses like Balenciaga and MCM.

Crocs eyes China for next-level growth

With brand sales forecast to hit $5 billion by 2026, Crocs is eyeing the Asia-Pacific region, and especially China, to drive growth. “We have identified three strategic priorities, including sandals penetration, digital innovation, and growth in Asia,” reveals Rees. The company is aiming to grow its Asia sales to 25 percent of global sales by 2026, up from 18 percent in 2022.

China is the world’s second-largest footwear market and is projected to generate a revenue of $82.82 billion in 2023, with an annual growth rate of 3.77 percent (CAGR 2023-2028). “We are particularly encouraged by the green shoots we are seeing in China where we continued to invest in marketing, newness and digital during the pandemic,” Rees tells Jing Daily.

Crocs’ Q1 2023 revenues in China grew over 110 percent on a constant currency basis. The brand ranked first in women’s shoes sales on Douyin and second in footwear sales on Tmall during this year’s 618 Festival. Meanwhile, the Crush Clog was the only footwear product to win Tmall’s “2022 Best New Products Launch” award.

The Crush Clog was the only footwear product to win Tmall’s “2022 Best New Products Launch” award. Photo: Tmall Heybox

Online footwear sales in China accounted for 52.1 percent of total footwear sales  in 2022. As Rees points out, China has been on the leading front of e-commerce for many years. “We continue to invest in various core e-commerce platforms such as Tmall and for increased brand exposure and communication opportunities for Crocs China.”

“Now, most product evaluation begins on marketplaces rather than search engines, making them the perfect place to gain market share,” he adds.

Enhancing creativity and relevance through designer and pop culture collabs  

High-profile collaborations have been key in driving Crocs’ global fashion status. From design partnerships with Salehe Bembury and Balenciaga to a KFC x Crocs collab that resulted in chicken-scented Jibbitz charms, these partnerships have pushed the boundaries of creativity to appeal across diverse markets. 

Debuted in 2021, the Pollex Clog by Salehe Bembury pushes the boundaries of function and form. Photo: Crocs

In 2023 alone, the footwear brand plans to launch more than 60 global partnerships with a mix of celebrities, mega brands and licenses, of which 25 percent will be regionally led. 

“When we create brand partnerships, we are looking for three key criteria: authenticity, creativity and relevance,” explains Michelle Poole, EVP, Brand President, Crocs. “The right partnerships allow us to deliver newness and excitement to current brand fans, while simultaneously offering an opportunity to reach new consumers who may not have considered our brand in the past. Often, these new consumers become lifelong Crocs fans as they discover the brand’s comfort and versatility.”

“The right partnerships allow us to deliver newness and excitement to current brand fans, while simultaneously offering an opportunity to reach new consumers who may not have considered our brand in the past.”

In China, Crocs has partnered with local celebrities including actor Bai Jingting (the brand’s global style ambassador) and actress Zhou Yutong (a global charming ambassador) to showcase different ways to style its shoes. 

A three-way project between fashion designer Shangguan Zhe, Bai Jingting’s Goodbai apparel brand and Crocs won “Collaborator of the Year” at the Footwear News China Achievement Awards (FNAA) in 2022. Meanwhile, Crocs creations by four emerging Chinese designers from fashion incubator Labelhood sauntered down the runway at Shanghai Fashion Week 2023.

“In addition to launching relevant global partnerships, we layer in partnerships unique to the Chinese consumer, culture and calendar,” Poole describes. To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, for example, Crocs partnered with Chinese creative brand Melting Sadness to launch a limited-edition clog featuring the brand’s blue Karoro bunny and melting carrots. 

Michelle Poole, EVP, Brand President, Crocs, says self-expression, personalization, clogs and travel are key trends emerging in China that are well-aligned to the Crocs brand. Photo: Crocs

Tapping into the digital space, Crocs also teamed with popular gaming IP Honor of Kings for its “Be Your Own King” campaign, which won Best Omnichannel Campaign at The Drum Awards for Digital Advertising APAC 2022. Encouraging fans to “courageously express themselves,” the campaign leveraged online and offline channels across gaming, social media and digital touchpoints. 

The campaign was timed to coincide with Tmall’s Top Brand Day to drive sales of its limited-edition Honor of Kings clog designs. A live-streamed 5v5 Honor of Kings battle featuring Bai Jingting and Chinese e-sports player Yinuo was also broadcast on Taobao Live and Weibo, gaining 420,000 views and 1.4 million likes. 

‘Enter the cave’: Driving the clogcore trend in China

Crocs’ popularity in China is driven by a subculture known as Dong Men (洞门) or clogs follower. On social media platform Xiaohongshu, topics related to “Crocs” and “DIY Crocs” have accumulated more than 260 million and 150 million views respectively, with the slang term “entering the cave” (加入洞门) regarded as a proud lifestyle choice by devotees.  

Commenting on the future direction for Crocs, Poole states: “The key trends we see emerging in China and well-aligned to the Crocs brand are self-expression and personalization, clogs and travel. We will continue to build on the growing ‘clogcore’ trend with a pipeline of innovative, trend-right new product introductions, moving at the fast pace of the Asia consumer.”  

The company also plans to surprise and delight consumers with a constant flow of new Jibbitz charms and expand into the sandals category, a major opportunity in Asia. “We will continue to bring newness and deliver a very strong style, comfort and value proposition to allow us to gain market share,” Poole adds.

Are you ready to enter the cave? 


CEOs, Companies, Fashion