Accidental Encounters with Two Magazines and Market Evolution

The other day I was reading Vanity Fair. That’s a little weird. But my wife gets it, and one of the highlighted cover stories was “Surfing the World’s Giant Waves.” I enjoyed it and learned a little more about surfing history. Still, I was a bit surprised to find the story there. The mag was full of high end fashion ads. Those ads weren’t a surprise.

Then, on another other day, I picked up Complex magazine while getting my oil changed. Actually, it was my car’s oil. Mine should be okay through trade show season.

There were five pages of Vans ads and Volcom had a two page spread. They were right there with the Smirnoff’s ad, the Puma ad, the video game ad, and the various car ads.   DC had an ad for the Rob Dyrdek collection.
None of the ads I notice in either of these magazines (I might have missed one) mentioned skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, or any of the other sports that might be considered to be “action sports.” Not even the Vans, Volcom or DC ads.
Vanity Fair obviously believes that big wave surfing is of interest to its readers. That’s good news for surf companies. I’m guessing that most of Vanity Fair’s readers don’t surf. But all but the smallest surf companies sell a chunk to most of their product to non-surfers, and they are certainly pleased to see upper income non-surfers be exposed to surfing.
Complex represents a culture, attitude, lifestyle that I’d characterize as young, urban, sarcastic, and a bit in your face. It suggests a certain level of indifference to convention and norms and implies that if you adopt its standards you’ll somehow be self-confident and respected. Cool, if you will.
It is what and how the cores of skate, snow and surf began. Except that you actually had to skate, snowboard or surf to achieve this differentiation back then, and that was a simple distinction.
If our industry was all about, and only about, supporting people who surf, skate or snowboard, I doubt there would be any successful public companies. The participant market and its growth prospects are not large enough to interest Wall Street.
Vans, Volcom, and DC, public or owned by public companies, know this. So we find them running what I think I can fairly characterize as fashion ads (hell, maybe all ads in our industry are fashion ads) making no mention of their roots and the sports they are/were closely associated with. You and I, of course, know what those associations are and our perception of those three brands are influenced by that knowledge. And the people who read Complex? Some of them know, but I imagine a lot don’t. And apparently that’s fine or these brands would feature that association in their ads.
No ads in Vanity Fair yet, and maybe we’ll never see that day. The Vanity Fair sensibility (high style?) is a lot different from Complex (urban/trendy?). Still, though I don’t expect to see it, wouldn’t it be interesting if some brand decided to take a flier just for fun? I can see the Mervin Manufacturing ad now. “Some fool in the marketing department put an ad in Vanity Fair.  They’ve been fired but you can buy our snowboards anyway if you want to. They work good and besides, the ad’s already paid for.”
Yes, it’s easy for me to be cavalier with somebody else’s money.
But you can see a divide happening in the industry, whatever industry we’re in. On the one side are companies that service participants. On the other side are the ones who are more and more fashion based and have to decide how to position themselves with respect to their roots. Is it about trendy, stylish, comfortable product or about making the trick? Can it be both? Depends on your market and how you segment it.
It isn’t that black and white, and the discussion would be different for every brand. But if you make the fashion decision, then you are choosing to compete in a market that dwarfs the traditional action sports industry in resources and sophistication. And you probably need help. This is, and will continue to be, the rationale (a valid rationale) for consolidation and the acquisition of brands that want to “take it to the next level.” In fact, I think it will be the unusual company that gets to that next level without being acquired.



2 replies
  1. Christopher Scott
    Christopher Scott says:

    Jeff, don’t you see this as a normal brand cycle? Because action sports is so closely tied to the lifestyle of action sports and not necessarily the sports themselves, the endemic brands were inevitably going to try and extend their reach.

    It reminds me of the late 70’s, early 80’s with Ocean Pacific (OP) and Lighting Bolt brands attempts to grab a larger shares of the market and then contracting in the face of stronger pure fashion brands and stronger core brands. They were being attacked from both ends of their business. Now granted the fashion and branding industries of today have evolved to very high levels of competency and sophistication with market analysis.

    I would provide a warning and a simple analogy to the endemic action sports brands as to how they should view their brand in the market;

    Building a brand is like war. And in war you never attack beyond the reach of your supply lines. For endemic action sports brands – the supply lines are the sports they are identified with, which infuse the brands with the respect and loyalty of the core demographic. The core demographic and the aspiring youth culture surrounding action sports provides the lifestyle for the market. The further away from the core demographic the brands attempt to reach puts them in danger of diluting their brand in the market place. I believe Pacific Sunwear is a good example of over reaching for market share and if I recall they announce that they were concentrating more on their core demographic.

    It’s capitalism 101; public companies are expected to grow every year, which is unsustainable in any industry.

    I believe a larger problem for action sports is that there isn’t a clear media leader carrying the torch for action sports and disseminating the action sports lifestyle to a much wider audience. ESPN, Fuel TV, and Versus TV all do a mediocre job at it. It leaves the endemic brands to do it themselves, which is a fragmented effort by brands with competing agendas. Without a media leader the action sports market is bound to contract over the next 5 years; it’s the life cycle of brands. But having a media leader promoting action sports could help mitigated a life cycle contraction to just a dip.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Yes, I do see it as normal. I also see setting the right balance as very difficult. That’s why so many companies get to a certain level and then are acquired (in my judgment, need to be acquired) before they can hope to continue. I like your supply line analogy a lot.

      Thanks for the comment,

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