Nohman, Rizwan and Imran Ahmed are three brothers from vastly different career backgrounds who, in 2013, came together to found a business. They were entering an overlooked category that generated little excitement, yet they could see the potential not only for excellent, high-end products, but a community and image to match. Seven years later, they now run the world’s largest premium sneaker care brand, and their story is an inspiration to anyone looking to launch a product.
Protection spray, cleaning kits, shoe wipes, scuff erasers…None of these sound particularly exciting, and yet Crep Protect has managed to take shoe care and create a fashionable, go-to brand. Centred around high-end sneaker care, Crep Protect has reinvented shoe care products and created a culture around it, engaging with sneaker enthusiasts in a new way and filling a gap that its founders wanted to see filled.
The brothers founded the company in 2013, and remain its only directors. The growth it has undergone is remarkable: in fact, the company was ranked as the 2nd fastest growing independent company in the UK, according to the Sunday Times Fast Track 100, and was also ranked as fastest growing fashion brand by The Financial Times. Today, Crep Protect is sold in 52 countries worldwide and has distribution centres in the UK, Belgium, China, and the USA. It sold 16 million units last year, and this figure is only set to grow. All of this is at a premium price point, with only high-tier retailers stocking the product. None of this was expected by the industry leaders that spoke with the brothers, many of whom were critics: “We were constantly told by industry leaders, ‘Shoe care has been around for 27 years. No one’s that bothered about it.’” Now, people are bothered about it. Crep Protect sought to change the way people thought about shoe protection, to make a brand that was fashionable, relevant, and actually engaged with their consumer.
“The shoe care industry is often ignored,” Nohman explained. “It’s often just an item for sale in the store that you’re pushed to buy, even though you don’t really want it. There’s no brand engagement, there’s no brand loyalty. You go home, you throw it under your sink and that’s it – journey’s over. So, for us, it was about changing that mindset, drawing the customer to the product, and becoming a brand that was bought, not sold. Basically, we wanted to make it cool to protect your sneakers.”
Despite advice against it, the brothers chased their dream, and it paid off, big time. Their success is a combined result of careful strategy, consumer awareness and a genuine passion for what they’re doing. So, what inspired the three brothers to take a risk on launching a new business in a category as overlooked as shoe care? “It was a passion for sneakers, really. We found that we couldn’t trust anything out there to clean or spray our sneakers properly, so we were answering a question that we needed an answer to. We knew that there were other like-minded sneaker-heads in the community that definitely had the same problem.”
To develop the product itself, Crep Protect worked with a lab in Germany to produce their first recipe. They teamed up with experts in Nano-proteins, seeking to create a sprayable solution that could be sprayed onto textiles and would successfully protect them without damaging the fabric or changing the shoe’s look, feel or performance. After eight months of development, the brothers and the lab reached a solution that they were happy with, and Crep Protect was launched. “Since then, we’ve probably changed the solution about 12 different times,” Nohman adds with a laugh, but this is no bad thing. The company seeks to constantly learn and improve, and has an R&D department constantly working on this task. Not only does Crep keep improving its formula, but it must adapt it to changing circumstances, too – differing safety policies between countries regarding chemicals and aerosols is one factor to constantly stay on top of, and the other is the evolution of sneaker manufacturers themselves. “Sneaker manufacturers are changing constantly – they keep coming up with innovative new materials, so we need to continue to stay above that curve.”
Whilst having a high-quality, reliable and up-to-date product is all critical, and the entire reason that Crep Protect was founded, the brothers knew that the only way to truly stand out all relied on their marketing. As Nohman said, they wanted to be bought, not sold – they didn’t want to be chasing sales and pushing a forgettable product on people, like so many other shoe care brands. Instead, they wanted the product to speak for itself, through the impression of an aesthetic, vibe and lifestyle that it communicates to its customers.
“Everything we did was focused on marketing. We knew that if you focus on the inputs, the outputs will come. That’s why we always chased customer engagement; we wanted that emotional connection ith the consumer.” To date, 80% of the staff in Crep Protect’s HQ are part of its creative and marketing team. It was important to the brothers that this side of the business be kept in-house, where there was a true passion for and understanding of their product and their message to the consumer.
“We’ve been highly commended for our marketing style and our world class, engaging content. I mean, we’re a shoe care brand, but we have 1.4 million followers on Instagram.” From their Instagram to their website to their packaging, everything about Crep Protect’s vibe is fun, street, on-trend and engaging. There’s an undeniable sense of style, and an understanding of its consumers and their community that you can’t fake. This authenticity, both in lifestyle and in passion for the product, is important in winning over customer loyalty and making that genuine brand connection…which is always a challenge to convey whilst strategically creating media.
It’s no surprise that one of the keys is staying up to date, rather than presuming that they know who their customers are, given that what is and isn’t relevant changes so quickly. “It’s just about keeping on top of being on trend, really. We’re geared around sneaker-heads, but the consumer changes and shifts constantly.” However, there is an even bigger factor to take into consideration: “We’re selling to 52 markets in the world, and it’s understanding that your marketing that works in China doesn’t particularly work in the UK.” Country by country, the face of fashion, culture and social media changes, and Crep’s team works to respond to this. China, however, is by far the greatest anomaly out of Crep’s markets: “The Chinese market is a world of its own. We have a dedicated team that just looks after China. We have a social media platform, but that doesn’t resonate with China because they have their own platforms. It’s important to create content that’s geared around that. It’s a massive, massive untapped market for many companies.”
A market that’s proven very successful for Crep is South America, which was something of a pleasant surprise for the brothers. “The South American market has a demand for the product, and the rate of sale we have for the product there is outstanding. Sitting in the UK, we’ve had our perceptions of how different markets were, but until you actually start selling in them and visit the market, you don’t really know.”
Authenticity isn’t just about being well-versed in your market, though – it’s also about your attitude in how you push your product. Whilst Crep’s efforts focus heavily on their marketing, they don’t believe in hounding people for sales. “We don’t like to force product down people’s throats. We like consumers to be drawn to us. We have to constantly engage the audience, but at the same time, stay core to our roots, and the community that allows us to sell at that premium price point.”
This attitude can’t just be public, but must exist behind the scenes, in the ways the gears of the business and product sales turn. “The industry was heavily incentivized, because the sales staff are getting commission out of, and we found that to be quite ingenuine, so we moved away from that. Changing the mindset of the consumer was a challenge, but changing the mindset of the retailer was quite difficult as well.” Crep didn’t want its product to be yet another shoe care item that’s forced on you at check-out and then thrown under the sink – it knew it was better than that. Although it was a new approach, however, isn’t to say they didn’t get support: Nohman was keen to mention JD Sports, Footlocker and Snipes, all of whom understood the company’s vision and took a gamble on them when they needed it.
As a part of its marketing, Crep works with influencers, including YouTubers and major celebrities. However, again, whilst some of these are paid partnerships, the most major names that Crep has crossed paths with have been the result of an organic coming-together, from the celebrities genuinely coming towards the product. After all, high-tier protection that can safeguard expensive sneakers is something that many a celebrity is going to be interested in. “We’ve got Dele Alli, a premiership footballer, as an ambassador; we’ve had DJ Khalid as an ambassador. 50 Cent has worn one of our clothing items. We’ve had Tory Lanez come to our store, we’ve had Neymar, the footballer, come to our store.”
The store Nohman is referring to is linked to Crep’s other brand. Off the back of Crep Protect’s success, the brothers also opened a premium streetwear retail store called PresentedBy, which is partnered with luxury fashion store Harvey Nichols, and also therefore appears in a selection of Harvey Nichols stores, including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Dohar, and is set to open in Mexico City, Paris and Dubai next year. The celebrities Nohman listed are but a few of the high-profile customers this store attracts, through which customers can buy not only premium streetwear, but rare sneakers as well. As you can imagine, they aren’t cheap!
“It’s about creating that premium in-store experience, where the consumer is led by experience and emotion rather than price. That partnership with Harvey Nichols has gone really well, and allows us to elevate both brands together.”
On top of these two main companies, the brothers also have a handful of side-operations, all sneaker-based – these ones with a view to promoting sustainability and supporting charity efforts. For example, the company has a sneaker drop-off station at some locations that allows you to have your sneakers cleaned whilst you shop (in some provided sliders). This, plus workshops on sneaker protection and restoration, couples with the company’s overall stance as a shoe care brand to encourage people away from ‘fast fashion’ and to look after their sneakers, so they keep them instead of replacing them. The company also has donation points where you can give away your old sneakers, which the company then cleans, restores, and donates to various charities.
Crep has certainly made a name for itself, and for its founders, at times, it’s still a little surreal. “Usually we’re working hard, moving at 100 miles an hour, but sometimes we take a step back.” Amongst all of this success, one moment that really drove it home for the brothers was the day that they were approached by one of their favourite brands: Adidas. Adidas AG licenses out different elements of its business to external manufactures, including products such as its shower gels, cosmetics, etc. One such product licence covers shoe care. Adidas turned to Crep Protect, and asked them to take on the manufacture and sale of Adidas’ own shoe care line.
“It was quite humbling, to see that even a big player like Adidas, leaders in the market, were coming to us. Growing up with Adidas as one of our favourite brands, being approached by them was one of those moments where we suddenly appreciated the positioning of the brand world-wide. We are now, by far, the world’s largest premium shoe care brand in the world.” The brothers accepted, and as of January 2019, Crep has been the official licence holder for Adidas shoe care.
‘Athleisure’ has become increasingly fashionable, thanks in part to the influence of YouTubers, as well as fitness gurus promoting their lifestyle via Instagram. Alongside this, the global footwear market is set to grow to £250.24bn by 2023. With a view to move more into the clothing segment, Crep is working on developing a waterproofing solution for streetwear that is equivalent to its shoe products, but there are no plans to rush this out until the product is of the right standard. Currently, it is in the development stage, but watch this space. In the meantime, the company plans to focus on expanding into its new global locations, and continuing to stay up to date with its market as the passion for footwear continues to increase.
What these brothers have achieved is an inspiration: they didn’t have experience in the sector, and people doubted their vision, but with a combination of faith and talent, they stuck with it and made their dreams a reality. “We created a category. We wanted to be the Red Bull of sneaker care, and I think we achieved that.” As we enter a new year, perhaps Crep’s success can inspire future entrepreneurs. We asked Nohmad what advice he would give to someone looking to launch their own brand – particularly those looking to push the limits of their category:
“Don’t always follow the rulebook, because if you follow the rulebook, you can’t innovate, and it’s innovating away from the norm that allows you to succeed.” The most important thing for Crep was to make sure that their product answered a question for the consumer; with this as a foundation, the rest comes down to engagement. “Challenge the status quo and always, always follow those inputs and the marketing. Do that, and the volumes will come.”