Give consumers a department store’s worth of flip-flop brands, and chances are a whopping majority would zero in on the Havaianas.

It’s true. When the brand from San Paulo, Brazil came into the Philippine market in 2003, the once frowned upon rubber tsinelas became ubiquitous in even the more dressed-up settings of the metro. What was once dubbed as “pambahay”, rubber thongs—of the Havaianas variety, of course—suddenly became all the rage and was gracing the pages of the country’s style and fashion magazines.

“When we started in 2003, we ended the year by importing and selling 3,000 pairs. This year, we are projected to end 2010 at about two million pairs. So it has really been phenomenal growth,” says Anne Gonzalez, managing director of Terry S.A. Inc., the exclusive distributor of Havaianas in the Philippines. “The brand, I think, is at a unique position where the market has embraced it like it’s their own.”

Happy, Engaged Customers

To say that Havaianas has established a cult following would be an understatement. Google the brand and you’ll see one “Havaianatico” after another rave about why he/she is a fan. “It’s interesting because our loyal customers would even volunteer information to us; one girl e-mailed just to say that she wore her favorite pair of Havaianas when she got married,” shares Gonzalez.

Mainly because of its origins, Havaianas is a positive, dynamic brand that has always been about happiness. “By nature, the Brazilians are a happy, vibrant and colorful people, and the product reflects that,” says Gonzalez. “Our customers are always attaching Havaianas to a memory or something emotional. And because we’re quite intimate with our loyal customers, we either engage them in events and campaigns that are always tied to that value—happiness.”

Culturally, flip-flops have always been a part of the Pinoy lifestyle, making the Philippines a very lucrative market for a brand like Havaianas. “The Philippines is actually our strongest market in Asia, and globally we are within the top 10,” informs Gonzalez. With so many brands present in the market, what makes Havaianas stand out is “customer involvement. It’s why we always do campaigns like ‘The Original Campaign’ with RockEd and ‘Happy Soles’ to celebrate the pinoy’s happy spirit, which we launched when people were still recovering from Ondoy. It’s not just about buying flip-flops and getting a freebie in return. People want to participate, they want to be involved.”

‘Design a Smile’

Down to the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, Havaianaticos are pretty much kept on the loop. “Design a Smile,” a flip-flop design competition for the benefit of Operation Smile, was launched last October and entailed the involvement of children aged five to twelve. It was a series of one-day events held in participating malls nationwide, with kids showcasing their creativity and talent for a chance to design a limited edition Havaianas pair that will be sold nationwide to fund an Operation Smile medical mission.

“When we started with our CSR program, ‘Design A Smile,’ it wasn’t just a formality to officially say that we have CSR. Rather, we felt that this is a right fit for a brand that has been so successful,” shares Gonzalez. “It made perfect sense for us to do something—not just give money to the cause, but to really stand behind it because it’s part of our corporate values. We found our partner in that with Operation Smile.”

Operation Smile, a private, non-profit volunteer medical services organization, provides reconstructive surgery and related healthcare to indigent children and young adults with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other childhood facial deformities. “Operation Smile is all about sharing smiles and that’s the truest expression of happiness,” says Gonzalez. “Interestingly, Operation Smile started because the founder—an American surgeon and his wife—went to Naga City and they saw many kids suffering from childhood facial deformities. So it really started from being inspired by Filipinos in 1982 and now they’re a global organization. I had the privilege of witnessing an Operation Smile medical mission, and we really feel that this is a partnership that’s in it for the long haul.”

Visit www.havaianasphilippines.com/smile for more information on how to make kids smile.

Published in the November 15, 2010 issue of the Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section.

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