- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

ST. LOUIS — Cross-marketing and multimedia weren’t the buzzwords they are now when, 100 years ago, a suburban St. Louis shoe company took a chance and bought licensing rights to a comic strip character.

In his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits and Dutch-boy haircut, Buster Brown took swats on the backside in his comic strip and helped the Brown Shoe Co.’s bottom line. The lineup of children’s footwear bearing his name helped build the company into what is now a $1.8 billion business.

The winking boy with his sidekick pooch, Tige, made his way into everything — comic books, radio, TV and theater spots. For decades he proved a superb fit for Brown Shoe, which has stumbled some in recent years as it grows into a larger concern owning store chains and other shoe lines.

Shares in the suburban St. Louis company are trading at about $27 on the New York Stock Exchange, narrowly above its 52-week low of $25.35 and well below its high for the year of about $42. In recent years it has worked at restructuring, closing about 100 stores in its Naturalizer chain and laying off about 600 workers.

Since then, Brown Shoe has grown, returning its global work force to about 11,500 workers and now happily celebrates Buster’s anniversary.

“Few brands ever make it to 100 years,” Brown Shoe spokeswoman Beth Fagan said. “So when you have a cherished brand like Buster Brown that can say it’s been putting shoes on the feet of children for 100 years, it’s a real milestone.”

Buster Brown debuted in Richard Outcault’s comic strip in the New York Herald on May 4, 1902, nearly a quarter century after shoemaking Bryan, Brown & Co. got its start. It then changed its name to Brown Shoe Co.

At the 1904 World’s Fair, Outcault licensed the character to several dozen companies at a time when copyrights to comic characters didn’t exist, said Richard Olson, an expert on Outcault and his works.

As a rising young Brown Shoe sales executive, John Bush apparently saw the value of the Buster Brown name as a trademark for youth shoes and persuaded the company to buy the rights to the name.

Brown Shoe is said to have paid $200. Then it began its marketing push.

An army of small circus performers with small dogs resembling Tige was dispatched across the country, portraying Buster Brown while pitching the shoes at theaters, department stores and shoe shops. In many areas, entire towns turned out to watch.

In 1910, Brown Shoe published “Buster Brown’s Jokes and Jingles,” a booklet that children received with a purchase of the shoes. A year later, Buster Brown starred in the company’s first national ads in the Saturday Evening Post. With the dawn of movie theaters nationwide, Brown Shoe by 1913 was making Buster Brown a star of short films.

Four years later, a sweeping advertising campaign in that time’s most popular magazines made Buster Brown shoes a national brand.

“I’m not quite sure why Buster Brown became so popular,” Mr. Olson said. “If I did, I’d probably make a lot of money.”

By 1958, Buster Brown shoes were the world’s best seller for children, by then versed in the well-worn tag line: “That’s my dog, Tige. He lives in a shoe. I’m Buster Brown. Look for me in there, too.”

Decades since, Brown Shoe’s portfolio has grown to include the 915-store Famous Footwear chain of family shoe stores and the 380-store Naturalizer chain selling women’s shoes in the United States and Canada.

In announcing last month that its second-quarter earnings were off 32 percent at $7.8 million, Brown Shoe said its net sales for the period largely were flat at $458.7 million. And although sales for the Bass footwear line contributed $9.1 million in the quarter, weakness in children’s and women’s private-label markets more than offset that increase.

Still, Juli Niemann — an RT Jones analyst based in Brown Shoe’s home turf — considers the company “a totally focused business” since its retooling — and more nimble in a world where “fashion can change on a dime.”

“Along with other retailers, it’s down for a reason — it has to do with consumer spending” curtailed at least in part by higher oil and gas prices,” she said.

Brown Shoe’s prized Buster Brown line has evolved from the brown-and-buckled variety to today’s pink, blue or sparkly versions for girls, hiking boots or sandals for boys. Each pair has Tige’s paw print inside.

Still, grown-ups including 59-year-old Mr. Olson wonder whether the childlike mascot — the stuff of shoeboxes of memories for so many adults — may find its fame fading.

“I bet if you ask 50 kids, Who’s Buster Brown?’ you might be hard-pressed to find people who could tell you,” said Mr. Olson, a retired psychology research professor living on a farm in Mississippi.

“It is the centennial, and there aren’t that many around who were intimate with Buster Brown. Down the road, he’ll be forgotten.”

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