My wife uses Bobbi Brown cosmetics and I doubt most of you really care. Like me (and I’m guessing all the guys who read this), until right now, you’ve probably never heard of Bobbi Brown. Maybe some of my women readers know it.
I care that my wife looks great but not what brand she chooses.
Hmmm. That sentence is probably worth some discussion, but first I’d like you to check out Bobbi Brown’s foray into skate. It’s seems they made some pink skateboards “…to empower women to try something that isn’t typically thought of as a woman’s sport.” They got pro skater Eli Reed “To teach a bunch of fashionable newbies how to skate in two hours’ time.” It doesn’t look like too bad a job.
Anyway, go take a look at the brand’s blog post on the subject. If you don’t hit your mute button, you’ll have to listen to “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story as the background music. Oh what the hell- don’t mute it. You ought to get the whole effect (The music on the actual video of the session is better).
First I laughed. I mean, it’s not like this is the first time any of us have seen skateboarding used in a way that’s not precisely consistent with its roots as most of us think about it. Then I got a little morose and thought about how much I missed skateboarding being kind of dark, underground, urban, mysterious, exclusive. Maybe that’s a long way to say core.
Finally, I got around to thoughtful and thought, “Hell, if something is getting new people to skate, do I really care what it is?”
Now it gets complicated. I guess if I’m a core skate brand, I do care. Because “getting people to skate” doesn’t mean they are going to go out and buy a branded deck. A skateboard won’t be a statement to most of these people. It will be a tool they use to do something they enjoy. Like, I suppose, a snowboard has become. Or a basketball? Or golf clubs? Pick an activity.
It is the duty of every brand manager to convince her customers and potential customers that her brand is “better” than the competitors’ brand even, or maybe especially, when meaningful differences are hard to discern. But as quality improves (plateaus?) and distribution broadens it gets harder and harder to convince people that product differences, even if real, matter.
The skate industry spent many years and a whole lot of money explaining to people that a “real” skateboard was made of seven plies of laminated Canadian maple and nothing else. They succeeded. Then two things happened.
A lot of people said, “Well, we can laminate those seven plies of Canadian maple too, and we’re willing and able to sell it for less.” And they did.
And some skaters, especially those just discovering the sport (and they did think of it as a sport- not a lifestyle) said to the industry, “You’re right- a skateboard is made of seven plies of laminated Canadian maple just like you said and just like these cheaper decks.” Excuse me if I don’t go through the entire industry lifestyle cycle, product becoming a commodity argument again here.
That brings me back to my earlier comment about caring how my wife looks, but not what brand of cosmetics she uses. The only thing I experience with cosmetics is the result. I don’t care about Bobbi Brown, its secret sauce, or the fraternity of users. My wife, on the other hand, could tell me in so much detail that I’ll never ask (though maybe I will now just to see what answer I get) why she uses the product. Part of the answer may be that she got a good price on it, but that won’t be the whole answer.
There is, of course, and will always be, a “core” skate market. That market, I expect, will come and go with demographics, because it usually has. And it won’t include just people who buy branded decks.
But now that product quality is high and distribution broad, a lot of, new skaters will experience skating like I experience cosmetics. As long as it works, I just don’t care about the details.
Bobbi Brown, I assume, is interested in selling cosmetics- not skateboards. They just decided, “Oh this might be fun. Look what we’re doing.” It could have been something besides skateboarding. I’m sure it will be in future blog postings. Was there a business calculation there? Of course.
Bobbi Brown’s skateboarding experiment felt inclusive and nonjudgmental. They were just having fun which I think is what you’re supposed to do when you skate.
Remember when we all (including me) mocked scooters when they came out? I thought they’d be a flash in the pan. They went through an amazingly accelerated business cycle and became a commodity. But it seems that some kids don’t care about that and just think scooters are fun. Somebody is making those things and selling them for, I’m guessing, a profit.
What if some core action sports company, skate or otherwise, had branded those things and started to sell them with a longer term perspective? Big risk? For sure. Leads to being mocked by your peers? Probably. Alienates some of your existing customers? Almost certainly. But who knows what might have happened. Business is a risk.
The core skate market has always had a sort of insular arrogance to it that was part of its marketing positioning and, for a long while, served it well. But the whole action sports industry, if that’s what we still are, has evolved to a point where being inclusive and nonjudgmental makes a whole lot more sense.
Longboards come to mind. They came out of nowhere, were kind of ignored in a “You’re not cool wish you’d disappear” sort of way by the core skate market and are now a big, big chunk of the skateboard market. Half? Part of that is because of demographics. But part is because they are inclusive and nonjudgmental. However you want to ride down a hill and whatever strange looking contraption you can design is fine with them. In fact, they will probably want to know more about why, exactly, your contraption is strange looking. This does something to advance the technology and keep the product fresh. As I’ve written before, it feels a bit like the bike market.
Cosmetics is a cut throat industry with, as far as I know- and that’s not very far, most product differentiation created by marketing. And they have the advantage of every woman in the world wanting makeup. I gained great insight into this when my mother, fresh out of hip surgery and still groggy from anesthetic, asked for her makeup kit. I don’t understand it, but I acknowledge it.
Maybe inclusive and nonjudgmental has become more important than “cool.”