Action Sports; Are We Still in That Business?

Seems a silly question I suppose. Action sports are what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we love. Our trade shows are more fun than anybody else’s. We get to take vacations and call them business expenses or, even better, product testing. Uh, not that I’ve ever done that, Mr. Tax Man, sir. But I’ve heard about it.

I’m not quite sure that’s the business we’re in any more. Or, to put it more precisely, I’m thinking that action sports is only part of our business. A smaller part for many of us. Maybe I’m just playing with words. “What’s in a name?” somebody once asked. Maybe a lot if that name determines how you think about who your competitors and customers are, how you need to do business, and the market where you position your product. Put like that, it’s a survival issue.
If you’re going to make money in this industry, you need to recognize how it has evolved and run your business accordingly. By reviewing that evolution, and talking about how you might redefine the business you’re in, I’m hoping some things you should be thinking about doing differently will become obvious. Or, at the very least, you can start to move in the direction of identifying those issues and opportunities.
Can It Be This Simple?
I thought this would be a nice easy article to write. Just sort of review some industry evolution. You know- how we use to sell mostly to participants and tended to be focused on a single sport, but now we’re selling across the sports, increasingly to non participants who just want to look good and maybe feel some connection to the lifestyle and account for the majority to most of our sales and even more of our profits. Then pronounce we’re in the fashion industry and be done.
Wouldn’t it have been great? “Wham! Bam! Thank you ma’am!” [good luck translators] and Boardsport Source would send me a check, and I could move onto my next project. But then I realized two things. First, that Boardsport Source pays by the word.  This was looking like a damn short article, and that wouldn’t do.
Second, and arguably more importantly, pronouncing that we are in the fashion business wasn’t much help to anybody. It was kind of like saying the goal of a business was making money. True, you need to do it, but it doesn’t say a thing about how to go about it.
So it appears I’m stuck at my computer a bit longer.
Still, my blazingly short description of our evolution as an industry- from participant to non participant as main customers and towards the fashion business- is generally accurate, though not adequate as I explain below.
Fashion Business- What’s That?
Are you thinking, “We all know what the fashion business is, so there’s no need to discuss it?” Well, you’re smarter than I am because I’ve decided I don’t quite know what it means, at least not in a useful way. Have you ever noticed that when the consensus is that “everybody knows,” you’ve probably got something worth digging into?
Here’s what I think characterizes the fashion business:
  • All product differentiation is created by advertising and promotion (branding) and design.
  • No functional product difference remains exclusive for long.
  • The fashion business is huge. The action sports business is tiny.
  • The fashion industry encourages product replacement. If we all wore our shoes and apparel as long as we reasonably could, the fashion industry would be a hell of a lot smaller than it is.
  • In a product we are encouraged to replace from season to season, function can become less important than form.
  • The customer base is no longer easily identified or segmented. Marketing (the process of figuring out who your customer is and why they buy from you) is critical. And challenging.
  • Your relationship with core participants is different. You want to sell to them, but they may be more important to you for the legitimacy and brand power they can give you with all the non participants who represent your biggest opportunity for growth.
If you think about these points, you may come to some of the same conclusions I came too. The one that sticks out like a day glow, skin tight orange/lime green ski suit on the slopes (Those aren’t fashionable again yet are they?) is that it is absolutely futile to say, “We’re in the fashion business,” because that business is too vast and varied and massive to tell you anything useful.
Which bring us to marketing.
Marketing- No Way to Avoid It.
Remember that we all use to be our customers. Market segmentation? If they boarded, they were a potential customer. If they didn’t they weren’t. Marketing done. It was easy, accurate and damn near perfect. It was seductive because it didn’t require any effort and didn’t generate any uncertainty.
Like an archeologist digging down through the layers of a civilization, we can find the remains of those days in some companies, where the people who manage the still critical advertising and promotions function continue to be called The Marketing Department. I have no idea why. If you accept my definition of marketing above, they don’t do any marketing. But somehow the name hangs on.
“What’s in a name?” I asked at the beginning of this article. Maybe a lot if you think you’re doing marketing, but what you’re really doing is running ads, supporting riders, and sponsoring contests. Lacking effective marketing, you have no way to judge if you’re running the right ads, supporting the right riders, and sponsoring the right contests.
If you agree with me that you’re now in the fashion business to some extent, your first job is to find out just what part you are in. You have to do some real marketing. You have to find out who your customers and potential customers are and why they buy from you.
Competitor Identification
As soon as you recognize you aren’t just in the action sports industry, but in some (clearly identified) segment of the fashion business as well, then the lists of companies you are competing against changes. Those non board sport participating customers that you are selling to are comparing your product to those of brands that have nothing to do with action sports.   Why might they buy your product? Why will a particular non skating customer buy Brand X of skate shoe rather than a Nike if they are just looking for a comfortable, casual shoe?
Obviously, if this wasn’t an issue skate shoe companies wouldn’t be making casual shoes less closely tied to actual skating.
So, you may have some different competitors. I wonder if those advertisements and promotions being churned out by your non marketing department are as relevant as they once were? You might wonder too. Are you spending all that money in the right place?
Then There’s the Customer
Just who is your customer? For most brands and retailers it’s not just core skaters, or surfers, or snowboarders anymore. It hasn’t been for quite a while. I think we’d all agree on that. If you want to grow your business to a serious size, there just aren’t enough of them around.
Look at your distribution and how it’s changed. There are a lot of clues about your customers there. Go ask your fifty largest customers to describe the person who buys your product. Don’t accept a vague answer. Work to collect some of that data if you don’t already have it.
Consider what you might learn. When you sell to a core participant, your customer tends to be  knowledgeable, function oriented, possibly less price sensitive, and knows about the competitor’s product. When you are selling to somebody who’s a lifestyle customers they are, well, not necessarily like that. They perceive themselves to have choice of brands beyond what the core customer may consider.
This has huge implications for how you advertise and promote your brand. Just as one example, the core customer may recognize and identify with specific sponsored riders and how they perform. The broader market “fashion” customer is less likely to recognize the rider or the trick, but may be attracted to their perception of that rider’s lifestyle and the places they go.
If that’s true should your ads be less technical? Does it change your choice of sponsored riders and how you compensate and present them? Etc.
For most brands and retailers, it’s no longer accurate to say only that, “We’re in the action sports business.” There’s an important and growing (maybe dominating) fashion component to your business, but describing your company as being, “In the fashion business” is too broad a statement to be useful, even though it’s true.
Chuck out the old habits. Recognize that your market is changing, and you have to do some work to figure out how and what that means. It’s no longer handed to you on a silver platter. And if you’re calling your Advertising and Promotions Department “Marketing,” will you please change that? You’re driving me crazy.