Havaianas: how the fuck did that happen?

I was walking home today when I noticed a bloke wearing Havaianas:



(None of these is the bloke I saw.)

Then it occurred to me that these flip-flops (or thongs for the Australian amongst you. Oddly, Australians also call G-strings ‘thongs’, as do Americans. Stick to flip-flops, guys; we invented the fucking language so you wouldn’t get all snarled up in such confusions) are a great example of a product that is virtually identical to all the others in the category yet seems to have some sort of superiority that exists almost entirely through its branding.

Now, if I were Dave Trott or Rory Sutherland I could analyse seven shades of shit out of this odd set of circumstances, but as it is I’m going to see if I can cobble together some sort of explanation as I watch Good Morning Vietnam at the end of a busy day (RIP Robin):

Their only points of difference are the ‘wishbone’ toe piece (inspired by Japanese geisha sandals) and slightly squashier sole (a closely guarded secret that surely can’t be that hard to emulate). They used to be just like any old flip-flop, but in the 1990s the decision was made to rebrand them as a fashion accessory. A HuffPo article on the subject says:

The label looked to inventive wearers who had long been transforming their bicolour sandals into single colour ones by flipping the white-topped sole over. In 1994, Havaianas introduced a new line of one-shade sandals in black, royal blue, pink and purple.

Suddenly, middle- and upper-class Brazilians who either wouldn’t have been caught dead in Havaianas or donned them exclusively for the short trek from their beachfront apartments to the sand, were snatching them up in multiple shades for all occasions.

People of all classes now wear them on all occasions, from Oscar red carpets to a trip to the beach. In Brazil they remain cheap enough for the less well-off ($5 for a basic pair), whereas they cost 5-6 times that in more interesting colours and richer countries.

But is that it? My own theory suggests that the little Brazilian flag on the toe part was the real stroke of genius: it gave each pair a recognisable branding so as the ubiquity grew it was obvious that these flip-flops were Havaianas, and with no other brands on the market it gave people something to aim for and ask for. Like Converse in its occasional forays to the top of the fashion tree, they became a great opportunity to wear something comfortable and easy on occasions that would otherwise require annoying brogues or heels.

So perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. I have a pair, and although I snagged them for free I do feel a bit better wearing them than any old pair that might have just cost £3 in Lanzarote. Maybe that’s my deep-seated wish to express to people that I have ‘taste’ and more than £3 to my name.

Whatever it is, the branding has worked on me and hundreds of millions of others across the world. Chances are it’s also worked on you. Why is that?