How Dr. Martens defined its culture without losing its soul

This case study explores the journey of a long-established business to preserve the best bits of its unusual, independent culture and energise its leaders in the face of ambitious growth targets.

Major upheaval threatens Dr. Martens’ culture

Since its origins in 1947, the business behind the iconic Dr. Martens boots had been fiercely independent in its approach and rarely looked to the wider footwear market to inform its direction. Employees were typically free-thinkers and creative mavericks and there was a strong, independent culture. This had helped the business to maintain its originality and stand out in the market.

However, the retail industry was changing rapidly and, following threats of bankruptcy in the early 2000s, 2014 saw the acquisition of the footwear brand by a private equity company. They brought in  a new CEO and laid down ambitious financial targets, which meant more than doubling the headcount and increasing the number of stores globally from 15 to initially 85.

Faced with a plan for rapid expansion, Dr. Martens’ independent, entrepreneurial spirit and its cultural essence were at risk. With so many people joining the business, and other long-term employees moving on, it was time to address the question “What does it mean to work at Dr. Martens?”

Deciding what to preserve and what to evolve within the internal culture would help everyone in the business to make decisions relating to all areas, from recruitment to colleague wellbeing, team management, branding and more.

We knew that if we could capture on paper what made us different today we would have a stronger foundation for creating the ideal commercial and cultural conditions for success tomorrow.
— Helen Verwoert, HR Director, Dr. Martens

Capturing what makes Dr. Martens special

In 2014, Dr. Martens HR Director Helen Verwoert brought in leadership coach and business consultant Elaine Grix. The pair agreed that this could not be an HR-focused initiative. The insights and opinions of employees of all levels would be vital to truly understanding Dr. Martens’ culture and how it should move forward.

A series of employee focus groups gathered insights into what made Dr. Martens different, exploring what people loved about working there and where things needed to change.

  • Six focus groups held
  • Involving 78 employees from different areas of the business, at all levels
  • A combined 644 years of service among those interviewed

The executive leadership team was also asked to share its views on the Dr. Martens culture, where its strengths lay and how improvements could be made.

Using these insights, a definition of “Who Dr. Martens is” was formulated, including its ambition, why the company exists and its beliefs. The essence of the business was distilled into the expression “Rebellious Self-Expression”; a simple, powerful and memorable phrase felt to be at the heart of everything Dr. Martens does.

It was key that this description worked not just for HR but for everyone in the business, and so this was an iterative process that took place over several months, involving contributions from senior leaders and all levels of employees.

Inspiring employees to celebrate and uphold this culture  

This description needed to be shared in a way that would energise and inspire everyone in the business. Branding and communication agency Music was brought on board for this task. They captured the company’s ambition, purpose and fundamental beliefs literally “on the record”, imprinting them on a seven-inch vinyl, complete with artwork, sleeve design and sleeve notes. Dr. Martens has a strong cultural association with music fans so this felt like the perfect fit for these messages.

This is the framework we are using to define what we stand for, how we behave and where we’re going. This is just the start. This is our brand, and this is our story. On the record.
— Steve Murray, CEO, Dr. Martens

The vinyl was distributed to every single member of the Dr. Martens team globally, so all employees could see immediately what the business was all about.

A regular internal newsletter called “On the Record” followed, featuring interviews with colleagues including “Desert Island Docs” and “A Day in my Docs”. Its quirky articles served as a further reminder that everyone’s self-expression and creativity was valued within the business.

Enlisting volunteers to strengthen the internal culture

But this was not just an internal branding exercise, it was also about continually influencing behaviour. A team of volunteers from all levels and all departments, known as the Culture Vultures, were brought on board to give the work longevity. The team regularly meets to discuss and implement new ideas for how to “live the the brand”. They address areas including wellbeing, personal growth and company events and communications.  

Developing strong leaders through playing to the company’s strengths

With this groundwork complete, it was now important for Dr. Martens to focus on integrating its beliefs and ambitions into its leadership approach.

Elaine ran workshops for approximately 60 senior leaders, helping each to explore their individual purpose and values and then relate this back to the company’s approach. The sessions also boosted listening and communication skills and honed emotional intelligence to strengthen team leadership.

Dr. Martens is such a strong, independent brand and the last thing we wanted was to clone a single approach to leadership. By supporting the leadership team to identify and celebrate their individual strengths and purpose and align them with the company’s ambitions, we aimed to energise the leaders to inspire their teams and strengthen the business.
— Elaine Grix, leadership advisor and consultant to Dr. Martens

The feedback from the training was extremely positive:

It’s really buoyed my enthusiasm and sent me on a reinvigorated path to give my best every day.
— Dr. Martens manager who attended training
I was pretty inspired throughout and did a lot of soul-searching about how I can be a better leader.
— Dr. Martens manager who attended training

Based on this success, further sessions are planned for 40 managers in the organisation. The training has also been extended to Dr. Martens US operations.

Outcomes

By successfully defining the culture, developing company leaders, and using this work as a bedrock for employee communications, the project has already improved employee engagement. Teams are more motivated, working closely together towards a common purpose. The work has supported the recruitment process too, formalising the characteristics and attitudes they look for in their recruits and giving new joiners greater insights into the company. While it is difficult to say exactly what the commercial impact has been, Dr. Martens has had a strong year financially and it is believed that the leadership development and employee engagement work played its part here.

What’s next?

This is only the beginning. With 1,500 employees predicted to enter the business within the next few years, there are plenty more opportunities for building the leadership development programme and extending employee engagement initiatives to uphold and build on the spirit of “Rebellious Self-Expression” within Dr. Martens.


If you’d like to know more about how this two-year project worked, the key takeaways from the the work can be found in this blog post from Elaine.