On Tuesday, July 28, for the first time in the product's 98-year-old history, you'll be able to buy an upgrade to the Chuck Taylor, Converse's iconographic sneaker.

The original sneaker is famous for its canvas exterior, prominent lace-hole circles, and star logo on the side which reads: "Converse All Star." The upgrade, called the Chuck Taylor II, will retail for $70 (low tops) or $75 (high tops), reports the Boston Globe

In addition, the Chuck Taylor II will include memory foam in the collar; a non-slip tongue; a more durable canvas exterior; and a Nike cushioning system on the inside for more comfort and support. Nike bought Converse for $305 million in 2003.

All of which raises a question that the New York Times' Vanessa Friedman asks in her "On The Runway" column: When should an iconic brand take the risk of making changes? "Just consider the branding controversies surrounding New Coke, or even Saint Laurent, which got into trouble when it dropped the 'Yves' from the name of the ready-to-wear line," she writes.

Here's the thing: All of Converse's upgrades have to do with the guts of the sneaker. They pertain to weight, comfort, feel, performance, and durability. The one thing Converse did not mess with was the sneaker's external appearance.

What it did was tantamount to preserving a classic car's distinct exterior, while souping up the interior parts that make it run. "If it has a wow factor when you put it on and it doesn't look that different from the outside, it probably won't be hard to convert some customers," Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst with NPD Group, tells the Globe.

What's more, Converse will continue to make the original Chuck Taylor sneaker, for those who want the classic look without splurging for the upgraded version.  

A Lesson from Mustang

Still, the only way Converse will know for sure if the upgrade delights customers will be to hear it from the customers themselves. Consider what happened when Ford updated the Mustang in the late 90s.

Initially, consumers said they found the new, late-90s Mustang to be less powerful than classic versions. This feedback confused Ford, because, in engineering reality, the new version had higher horsepower. Why, then, were all the consumers disappointed with what they perceived to be a less powerful vehicle?

To answer this question, Ford hired a consulting company to perform ethnographic research with the customers: That is, to ride with them in their new Mustangs, ask questions, and record observations. Here's what they learned, as reported in MIT Sloan Management Review

Power was something drivers experienced viscerally. They sensed it bodily when in contact with the car's vibrations while they drove. They absorbed it audibly when exposed to the "voice box" of the car's engine. And they grasped it visually when their eyes took in the Mustang's look. The ethnographers concluded that car performance was fundamentally a sensory, bodily experience rather than just a set of horsepower statistics.

With that information in hand, Ford realized that it needed to make the Mustang feel and sound powerful--so that drivers felt vibrations as they drove and heard the revving of the engine. These factors, Ford learned, were just as important as the car's actual power, as gauged through horsepower numbers. 

Is it possible consumers who buy the Chuck Taylor II will act like the initial set of Mustang customers in the late 90s? Will they, in fact, crave the familiar discomforts and vibes of the earlier version, even if that earlier version is technically delivering a lesser performance? 

Possibly. And that's why Converse is smart to continue making the original Chuck Taylor, too. Upgrades have their place, but not if the so-called benefits end up bugging the customers whose longtime loyalty made you iconic in the first place.

Published on: Jul 24, 2015