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Bata: How Does A 128-Year Old Company Still Remain A Household Name?

This brand’s journey across countries and adaptation to each culture and their population’s mindset is one for the books.

Way back in 1894, in the small town of Zlin (today in the Czech Republic), a man hailing from a long line of cobblers founded a brand that became a modern-day household name. Bata is so synonymous with the Indian middle-class family that it’s commonly mistaken for being an Indian brand.

Bata began with 10 employees in a small factory and grew to be an organization of more than 600 employees within 20 years. 

Thomas Bata, his sister Anna, and his brother Antonin borrowed money from their mother and started a small leather shoe company with 10 employees. In the summer of 1895, they replaced leather with canvas to overcome the financial difficulties they were facing. This new type of shoe grew in popularity, and along with it, his company. They kept pace with the rapid modernization that was rampant at the time with steam-driven machines and by employing the American method of mass production.

Thomas Bata with his siblings Antonin and Anna

They were known for their simplicity, functionality, style, and affordable price right from their first mass product, the “Baťovky”, a textile and leather shoe intended for the working class. Thomas’s younger brothers also joined the business and by 1912, they were an organization of more than 600 employees with exports to Germany, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

The “Baťovky”: The shoe that started it all (1897) and their first ladies’ footwear (launched in 1919)

Bata tackled the effects of the World War by employing a host of ‘employee first’ moves

The advent of the World Wars hit the growth of the business with a lack of availability of raw materials and labor, as his company workers were being drafted into the army, but Thomas Bata consistently maintained his determination to continue production. With a constant focus on innovations and benefits of employees, he built houses for employees near factories with inexpensive meals and free medical care and employed the wives of his employees at the factories.

Housing provided by Bata for their employees in the 1930s

During the economic slump following the first world war, he countered the country’s loss in currency value by slashing shoe prices by 50%; while the entire organization accepted a reduction in fees by 40%. At a time when businesses were shutting down, the demand for Bata’s inexpensive, comfortable shoes grew. In the 1930s, Bata built its headquarters in Czechoslovakia, which was the second-tallest building in Europe at the time of its construction.

It included the world’s first elevator office, which allowed the founder to move between floors without having to leave his desk. In a tragic turn of events, a plane crash during a business trip to Switzerland led to Thomas Bata’s untimely death in 1932 and he wouldn’t live to see Bata’s meteoric rise and the development of their two pivotal designs.

Bata’s entry into India, and their part in the 80’s pop culture

In 1931, Bata entered the Indian market with a production unit set up in a village called Konnar, near Kolkata, and was called Bata Shoe Company at the time.  Within 2 years of setting up, the demand for their shoes was so high that the region came to be known as Batanagar. 1936 saw the creation of their tennis shoe, one of the best-selling shoes of all time. The pinstriped sneaker with its distinct rubber toe guard was originally created for school-going children but ended up catching the whole world’s attention. 

At the time, wearing shoes wasn’t high up on an average Indian’s priority list. Bata contributed to people picking up the habit of wearing footwear regularly with advertisements such as “Beware of Tetanus, even a small injury could be dangerous – so wear a shoe” that was printed in November 1938.

By 1973, The Bata Shoe Company changed its name to Bata India Ltd and became a public limited company, and was listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

The Bata Tennis Shoe, created in 1936 is one of the best-selling shoes of all time. 

Not one to be bogged down by their ‘mass produced’ status, Bata in the late 20th century enjoyed quite the cult following for a few of their iconic shoes, worn by some of the world’s largest sporting and pop culture icons.

Manufactured in Bata’s Maryland factory in the USA in 1977, the Bata Wilson shoe was a lightweight sneaker featuring a polyurethane sole. Created as a tribute to one of America’s greatest basketball coaches John Wooden, this shoe grew to be a sought-after piece amongst sneaker collectors.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Bata steeped itself in pop culture. From Magic Johnson who launched his career wearing Bata’s Wilson shoes to Kurt Cobain who is seen sporting them in a Nirvana poster, their presence was felt in all spheres.

Bata Wilsons spotted on Kurt Cobain in this image of Nirvana

Taking a deep dive into the world of sports, Bata also sponsored a host of local and international sporting events including the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico that witnessed the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal and ‘Goal of the Century’ by Diego Maradona. Cycling, tennis, boating, golfing, and wrestling tournaments were some of the other events they sponsored.

However, by the end of the 20th century, Bata’s popularity in the US, fizzled out due to the emergence of larger, more attractive players in the industry, such as Nike and New Balance which appealed more to the American ideology.

A Bata adopter, Magic Johnson sporting Bata Wilson

For the Indian market, however, Bata employed unique pricing and positioning strategy

In a country where the rural population outnumbers the urban by 3:2, Bata positioned itself as a brand that provides reliability at a pocket-friendly price. Completely reliant on their distribution network, their strength lies in the tier-2 and tier-3 areas of India. 

Employing the strategy of ‘psychological pricing’ they price all their products down to the nearest lower ‘9’ digit figure of the actual price. Bata was one of the first brands to use this kind of pricing method to attract consumers. The fact that Bata focused on tapping into the mass market by delivering quality at a reasonable price point, rather than an urban audience who probably has more disposable income played in their favor, and helped their popularity.

Bata’s psychological pricing strategy contributed to its growth in the Indian market

Bata kept it simple when it came to its advertising strategy, and created some of the most iconic prints of the 70s and 80s

The 1980s was when Bata went on an advertising spree, due to stiff competition from brands like Liberty, Paragon, and Khadim. Their ads were focused on spreading a message about their utility, durability, and pricing. Although the advertising didn’t make a heavy difference in their retail stores, their print and television ads served as talking points due to their messaging around monsoon, youth culture, and family setups, and helped in the enhancement of the overall image of the brand. 

Their vintage print ads had to message that was simple and had a strong push towards the design aspect of their footwear, while their television ads spoke about the quality and material.  

Vintage print ads that focused on their product differentiations and features

Bata also heavily promoted the image of being the go-to store after vacation ends and schools open. Visiting a Bata store before the terms begins to purchase a shiny pair of black school shoes, sandals for monsoon and white converse for the PT day became a ritual of sorts in most Indian households. “First to Bata, then to school” was one of their famous taglines in the 1970s and 80s.

“First to Bata then to school”, Bata Malaysia, 1990

Heading for brands collabs and digital

The dawn of the digital age in the 21st century was accompanied by a couple of changes in Bata’s strategy, for both retail, product, and marketing. 

On the retail side, they started investing in fewer, larger retail stores as opposed to numerous smaller ones. With a steep incline in the types of footwear they sold, smaller format stores weren’t a viable option as they were unable to display a large variety. With shopping habits moving towards a more ‘experiential’ format, larger stores with a bigger, standardized format were the route they chose to attract more customers. 

In order to diversify their product portfolio, Bata brought Hush Puppies to India in 2010, which joined their variety of more than 20 in-house brands that included Power (athletic footwear at a great price point for school children, focused on performance), North Star (their range of casual shoes and accessories), Bubblegummers (shoes, clothes, and accessories for kids), and Weinbrenner (outdoor-inspired footwear and apparel).

Rebranded ads for a younger, urban appeal and Bata’s collaboration with Coca Cola

When it comes to its marketing strategies and online presence, Bata has reinvented their image by periodically populating its social media handles with numerous campaigns that are centered around festivalsseasons, and collaborations with Coca-Cola. They’ve also voiced their opinions on women-centric issues with their campaigns like #ComfortableWithIt#FindYourPower and #Bata9to9 to join the conversation around women empowerment and feminism, while also appealing to the urban woman, by using influencers such as Manushi Chillar, Kriti Sanon, Sushant Singh Rajput and Smriti Mandhana in their ads.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown in 2020, did have an effect on Bata’s sales, although not a grave one, majorly due to the rise in demand for casual shoes that were reasonably priced, as well as some creative strategies they employed at the time. They had started with a ‘store-on-wheels’ model, that was a Whatsapp ordering service for their ‘Bata Club’ members, which made home-delivery of footwear extremely convenient, especially for the elderly and children. They also placed a heavy focus on anti-bacterial and washable shoes while also launching an app that enabled consumers to check their foot size using their camera.

Firmly rooted in its legacy, Bata looks ahead to their future

A truly ‘glocal’ brand, Bata immerses itself in the culture of each country they do business in, and offers products and tweaks their messaging in order to appeal to the masses of the country. Continuing to remain relevant, over 100 years after it was founded, is an applaudable feat and Bata has managed to do so by constantly maintaining its ‘consumer-first’ approach and never compromising on quality. The spotlight on quality and efficient pricing not only appealed to the middle class in the country but across socio-economic sectors. In 2020, Aditya Puri, the chief executive managing director of HDFC Bank, said that he prefers to wear Bata footwear, and went on to send Bata a cake with a note that read,

“I have watched the transformation of the brand in recent years with great interest. I wear Bata as a preferred choice very proudly. My best wishes to the entire Bata family.”

For the first time in the brand’s history, an Indian was appointed to lead the firm in 2020

Sandeep Kataria (who has since resigned), as Bata’s global CEO, was focused on betting on online channels and revamping their portfolio. 

India, with its fast-growing appetite for Bata shoes, may soon be Bata’s largest market in the coming years. It will be interesting to see how the brand continues to take its legacy forward and how it will tailor its communication to convince customers of the relevance of their footwear in a market that’s getting increasingly crowded.

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