SoleRebels: How to Grow a Brand Globally

Ramu I.


SoleRebels is a family owned business that was co-founded by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu in 2005. It is based in Ethiopia and focuses on handmade footwear.  It has created plenty of employment opportunities for disadvantaged communities and has gained market access throughout the world including Europe, North America and Asia.  The firm's success and growth offers a unique case study of how small focused firms can gain international success. 

Creating a Clear and Unique Brand Identity

For many years, craftsmen and women in Ethiopia have utilized manual looms (locally known as inzert) for spinning fibers from indigenous plants such as cotton, hemp and koba and the material produced is used to create a variety of good-looking and durable products such as shoes and fabric. The large livestock population means a reliable and constant supply of skins which can be used for leather products. Local workmen also use the rubber from old automotive tires for shoe soles, which reduces waste while creating a new product.

From the very beginning, SoleRebels has relied heavily on the network of local crafts people and on the creativity of its own employees for the production of footwear. The company derives its name from rebel Ethiopian soldiers who were famous for using sandals made out of the material from used car tires. The workshop in Zenabwork village was originally financed by a bank loan of around $ 33,000 and all the fabric used has been spun in the traditional method from indigenous raw material. Every sole is cut and then stitched to the fabric by hand to ensure comfort and durability. Consequently, the company has been able to establish a global reputation for contemporary designs created by local Ethiopian craftsmen.

Marketing the Brand Identity

In order to retain existing customers and acquire new ones, their focus has been on creating attractive and eco-friendly brands promoted with the help of multimedia campaigns. The image sought to be conveyed is a mixture of young and old and is intended to appeal to people with an independent rebellious nature. The logo and the icon are an integral part of every brand communication so that the self-sufficient nature of the business and the reliance on indigenous raw materials is emphasized.

Their marketing emphasis has been on using Internet-based solutions to reach out to a global audience. A user-friendly website showcases all the brands and products with appropriate photographs and videos backed by a comprehensive search function. It allows customers to customize choices by size and color while providing up-to-date real-time information on inventory levels. The campaign is backed by a comprehensive customer guarantee promising free replacement for products that are not to the liking of customers.

SoleRebels has also worked closely with the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). In return for adherence to the 10 principles laid down by the organization, it has become the first footwear manufacturer in the world to receive the WFTO Fair Trade certification. Their products are now available in a number of countries including the USA, the UK, France and Japan.

At first it may seem that the local craftsmen made appeal of SoleRebels is in direct conflict with its technologically savvy marketing campaigns and digital infrastructure.  But on further analysis it shows new businesses a clear recipe for success in growing a business globally.  Identify a clear value proposition and brand identity and then use best in class marketing to reach customers and gain a following globally.