The leather substitute
In the mid-1960s, chemical giant DuPont invested millions in the promotion of Corfam, a synthetic substitute for leather. But although Corfam was launched in 1963, it had been conceived many years before. Indeed, in the late 1930s researchers at DuPont had discovered ways to make leather-like materials and had experimented with various possible uses. One of the most obvious uses was for footwear. Demographic trends were starting to indicate that the global population was increasing at such a rate that there would soon be a demand for footwear from non-animal sources.
DuPont therefore believed the world would greet the arrival of their hardwearing, shine-preserving, water-repelling leather look-a-like. And indeed, when the product made its first public appearance at the Chicago Shoe Show in the autumn of 1963, it was greeted enthusiastically.
All DuPont had to do now was to find out where exactly Corfam’s place in the footwear market would be. The company had predicted that by
- 47 per cent Women’s shoes
- 20 per cent Children’s shoes
- 18 per cent Men’s shoes
- 15 per cent Athletic footwear/Other
Clearly if Corfam was to become as big as it could be, it would need to be used by manufacturers of women’s shoes. It soon became clear, however, that the female shoe market was itself divided – between comfy, everyday shoes and ‘fashion’ shoes made for special occasions.
For all Corfam’s strengths, it was not as flexible or ‘skin-like’ as ordinary leather, and therefore was not suited for those shoes designed for comfort or everyday use. So fashion shoes seemed to be the solution. And yet, even here there was a problem. A synthetic material called polyvinyl chloride (now known to us as PVC) was fast becoming popular owing to its extreme low cost.
Vinyl shoes, which could be coloured or embossed very easily, were perfect for women looking for a ‘throwaway’ pair which may be worn once or twice at special occasions before being discarded.
Furthermore, the leather industry was keen to dampen the appeal of Corfam by lowering its prices and improving quality. This factor, combined with the growing popularity of vinyl shoes, led to DuPont’s announcement in March 1971 that they were to withdraw Corfam. On 11 April 1971, the New York Times referred to Corfam as ‘Du Pont’s $100 million Edsel.’
Lessons from Corfam
- Improve on the original. For a substitute product to work it needs to be better than the original in the minds of consumers. Although Corfam was long-lasting, it lacked the flexibility and ‘breathability’ of leather. It also proved too expensive.
- Remember that there’s no such thing as a certain success. Corfam was, without doubt, one of the most thoroughly researched and developed products of all time. As such, DuPont felt that its prediction that by 1984, 25 per cent of US shoes would be made of Corfam, was a justifiable one. And yet, Corfam wasn’t even around to see 1984, having failed after just seven years.
- Compete on quality or value. When a product is unable to be the best in terms of either quality or value it faces an uphill struggle to convince consumers of its merits.