Core Versus More; A History of the Surf Industry

Perhaps I bring the most value to the industry when a reader sends me something they think is important but that they don’t want to be directly associated with.  And they figure, “Send it to Jeff!  He’ll publicize anything.”

Most of the time, they’re right and this is one of those times.

We watched them grow.  We saw the triumphs, and then the travails, of Billabong, Rip Curl and Quiksilver.  Rip Curl, as a private company, had a little easier time of it.  They had the same problems as their brethren but, because they were private, were better positioned to take corrective action.  Billabong is an ongoing story, and Quiksilver’s denouement came with their bankruptcy filing.  Their brands should do better as a private company, but I’m unclear what will be possible given the brand damage done before the filing.

Mostly, we’ve all followed their stories.  Started by surfers, caught the right part of the growth curve for the surf industry, benefited from “the best economy ever,” then over expanded and lost touch with their base, which cost them credibility with the broader market they were trying to reach- if they ever had it- and ultimately with the core surf market.  Meanwhile, the economy went from best to worst.  Two went public and had (Billabong continues to have) the inevitable conflict that comes from having to grow but maintaining your credibility with the market you came out of.

I’ve talked about the management and branding challenges that being public or just trying to grow too fast causes for years.  “As you expand your distribution, they may know your brand, but they won’t know your story,” is more or less how I’ve put it.  Why will these new target customers care, and how do you attract them while keeping the customers that are your critical base?  Are you a surf company once you bring in outside professional management, make most of your product in China, are trying to sell mostly to people who don’t surf, and are more focused on rationalizing your supply chain (which you do need to do at a certain size) than closing when the surf is good?

This continues to be precisely the challenge that every action sports/active outdoor brand faces regardless of size.  But you aren’t in the early part of the growth curve, and the economy isn’t great.  You have to (I would think you would want to) learn the lessons that Billabong, Quiksilver and Rip Curl had to learn the hard way so you don’t make the same mistakes.

I keep ranting about brand building, distribution, knowing your customers, and focusing on the bottom line rather than the top.  Happily, a couple of people at an Australian university have taken a much more rigorous (and I think clearly unbiased) look at this.   The first part is a little pedantic (It’s an academic paper after all) but the history section is an easy and informative read.  No matter how small your brand is, please don’t make the mistake of believing that the lessons learned from Billabong, Quiksilver, and Rip Curl don’t apply to you.

The title of the article is “Subcultural enterprises, brand value, and limits to financialized growth: The rise and fall of corporate surfing brands.”  That just has to get your attention.

If there’s one thing you should learn it’s that patience, and a willingness to build your brand only as the market permits- rather than as fast as you’d like- wins the race.  Below is the link to download the PDF.  And take a look at the footnotes.  There are some other articles you might find it valuable to read.  May I suggest, SIMA, that the authors might make great speakers for your summit?

Surf Analysis



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