Make Love, Not War; Blanks and the Park and Recreation Convention. What’s a Skate Brand to Do?

First time I’ve ever had two subtitles. That must be meaningful. Either I’ve been thinking a lot about this, or I’ve got nothing to say and am desperate to use up space. I suppose each reader will decide which it is.

 Not long after I read Cullen Poythress’s article “The War on Blanks” in the September issues of this publication, I went to the Park and Recreation Convention here in Seattle. Basically this is the convention of people who sell stuff to playgrounds, and I can only say that I wish I was a kid again. Lots of cool stuff that’s beyond what I could have imagined when I was of an age to use it.
I saw Per Welinder from Blitz there, manning the IASC booth and promoting skate parks. I walked around a corner and came face to face with Beau Brown, formerly of Sole Tech and now COO of Radius 8, a seller of portable skate ramps. His face was all aglow from the huge number of business opportunities he thought he had at the show. As we talked, a guy from some municipality came up and, apparently amazed to learn that portable ramps existed, asked how quickly he could get some. He guessed at the price, kind of suggesting that one might cost $3,000 as I recall. Beau, who seems to have a nasty ethical streak he needs to get over, told him that no, the one he was looking at was only $300. The guy scurried away to get his boss.
Anyway I know this article is about something besides vignettes from a trade show. I guess I’ve got to go back to Cullen’s article to get to it.
I thought it was a good article. Balanced, dispassionate, and talking about an important issue. I would have liked to see some numbers comparing costs, prices and margins on blanks and branded decks, but that was really my only criticism of the article. And I agreed that the brands are critical to building and supporting skating and that blanks undercut their financial ability to do that.
I talked to some other business people in the industry who seemed to share my perspective, and were as surprised as I was by the outpouring of concern and criticism the article engendered. That got me thinking and the convention helped that thinking to jell.
What would I do if I was running a skate brand?
First thing I’d do is recognize that I’d had something to do with skateboarding having broken through and becoming a growing, recognized, and broadly accepted activity. I’d made some money, had some fun, and did it while being involved in something I loved. I’d helped position skateboarding so it probably wasn’t in danger of disappearing like it nearly has before.
Good stuff.
But after the sweet glow of success had worn off, I’d recognize that the “good old days” weren’t likely to come back, that blanks would be here to stay as long as skaters wanted to buy them, that hard good brand have had a hard time being successful in shoes or apparel (Fallen and Element are the exceptions I can think of), and that the financial model in the “core” part of market, where most hard goods brands are positioned, has gotten tough.
And that’s bad stuff.
But you know, it’s just business. And when an industry evolves, as it always does, the question isn’t usually how do you turn back the clock, but how you react to the new circumstances to make your business successful. I’ve got a couple of ideas. Maybe not the best ones, and certainly not the only ones, but you got to start somewhere.
New Areas of Focus
In 1995 I wrote in TransWorld Snowboarding Business (May it rest in peace) that it was time for every serious snowboard brand to hire a Director of Resort Relations. In what can only be characterized as a flash of brilliant insight I said, “Uh, don’t a lot of people snowboard at resorts? Maybe you should be doing something with the people who run them.”
I know that people do an awful lot of skating at places other than skate parks. I wouldn’t begin to try and estimate how much skating is done where. Still, the skate industry is doing everything it can to support the improvement and growth of skate parks. There must be some business opportunities there.
How about appointing a Director of Skate Park Relations? That person might start by identifying the 100 most important skate parks in the country. Find somebody who regularly skates each park. Make him/her your representative. They get free equipment and a commission on anything they sell at the park. I’ll bet you’d find a few who would really shine. They might find kids they know who would take responsibility for smaller parks in their area. Hell, pretty soon you’d have the Amway of skateboarding going on.
Consider creating a Director of Park and Recreation Commissions Relations. Visit the people who run them. Find out their level of commitment and plans for skating. See how you can help them. Help them make good buying decisions. Offer to sell them some decks co branded between your brand and the new park. Call Microsoft and see if they’d pay to have the Xbox logo on the bottom of a skate bowl, and keep a piece of the action while helping the Commission pay for part of the cost of the park.
I have no idea what opportunities there might actually be, but I bet 20 meetings with different Park and Recreation Commissions would turn some up. It’s worth a try. If you’re already doing it, never mind.
Improving Brand Positioning
It’s all about your brand. At the end of day, still lacking any meaningful product differentiation as perceived by consumers, your brand is all you have. Skate companies may be well positioned in the core skate market. But I think that market is a shrinking percentage of the total skate market as I would define it.   Taking advantage of skate’s growing, and more diffused, audience requires you to expand your market positioning.
The people who skate, or who just like skate, but are outside the core market need to know who you are and understand why you are credible. How do you do that? Depends on your brand. I’d suggest you start by studying other companies who have done it. How does Reef manage to sell its sandals at Nordstrom and still be a core surf company? Why can Burton sell its hard goods almost anywhere and still be so credible in snowboarding? What’s Volcom’s plan for expanding its very successful franchise without losing its core credibility? How do the skate shoe brands do it?
Now if somebody was to say, “It’s not the same. Skate is different,” I’d probably agree with you but with two caveats.
First, it’s never the same. Nobody’s business model is ever exactly the same as your’s and soft goods are different from hard goods. But these companies have made, or all still making I guess, a transition that skate companies probably need to make. So you might think about how they’ve done it.
Second, skate is different, and that’s part of the problem.   It’s different enough that it’s impeding the ability of brands to break into the wider skate market. Over twenty plus years, skate brands have made an implicit decision to stick to the core market. For the longest time, there wasn’t much to decide because that was the whole market. Now it’s not, and there are two choices.
You can stick to the core market and figure out ways to get skaters to buy more branded product. Or you can do what other successful action sports brands have done and expand your brand’s recognition and franchise to the larger market you’ve helped create. Any skate brand that was able to do that could be successful in the soft goods market. The Tony Hawk brand comes to mind.   
If you study the action sports brands that have made the transition to the broader market, the first thing you will notice is that none of them did it quickly. They were all around years before it happened. At some point in the action sports business, when you’ve been around five years or maybe longer, it’s suddenly possible for you to expand your distribution without losing your credibility with your historical customer base. Skate brands mostly qualify from this point of view and then some and that’s good news.
I was talking to Jamie Stone at TransWorld on another subject and he had what I thought was a good idea about building skate brands. Jamie’s concern was that pro graphics were changing too quickly. There was never a chance for the skater to build a bond among the brand, the skater, and the graphic. “What if the graphic lasted a year?” Jamie asked. “Then wouldn’t you have a chance to build a marketing campaign around it?”
Good question. It reminds me a bit of when the snowboard companies kept expanding their lines in response to what their competition was doing. They were focused on their competitors- not their customers.     
I hope there’s a strategy that reverses or at least halts the rise of blanks and shop decks. I know the industry is working hard to find one. But I came out of the Parks and Recreation Convention blown away with the new opportunities there can be for skate brands. Think about it. And go to that convention next year.