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Surf Fashion – A Study in Brand Strategy

April 12, 2016

Boarder_dude.jpg“How long should a brand strategy last?” It’s a question that comes up often in my branding workshops. My answer is always the same. A good brand strategy should last a company somewhere between 15 and 20 years … except if the brand in question is a fashion brand. Fashion, by its very definition, is changing all the time. So one should not expect that the same degree of longevity can be built into a fashion brand. And that brings up the sad case of Pac Sun and other “board sport” brands.

So-called board sports like skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing, have always struggled with boom or bust business cycles, with the booms usually triggered by the emergence of a star athlete. Before Tony Hawk was a household name, skateboarding was viewed with suspicion by corporate America. Athletes could not get sponsorships. The competitions got very little television time, if any. And, of course, most hip young style mavens looked elsewhere for their fashion tips. But, when Tony Hawk and, later, Shaun White were at the top of their games (both athletic and celebrity games), board sports, and the lifestyles and fashions they inspired, went mainstream.

Paralleling the growing interest in board sports were fashion houses like Quicksilver, Wet Seal, Billabong and Pac Sun. All of them tied their brands to variations of the California (and Australian?) outdoor-active lifestyle – and made mucho dinero, bro. But, now, according to the Los Angeles Times, Pac Sun has had to bite the bullet and follow the other three brands into financial restructuring.

One problem, for all four brands, is the ever-increasing rate of change. These days, even for fashion brands, the “in” style barely lasts a season. The surf look may be ubiquitous for a while but, then, faster than you can yell, “Wipeout”, it’s gone. The days when one brand can dominate a kid’s entire teen life, or even one summer, are over. The internet gives shoppers the capacity to change their looks at will.

Boarder_girl.jpgSecondly, these brands all decided to be retailers. And we know what the internet is doing to retailing. All across the board, retailers are consolidating and closing locations. They’re looking for other, creative ways to lure shoppers into a brick-and-mortar experience. None of these board-sport brands were able to develop compelling shopping experiences.

Third, there is no emerging, mainstream-worthy star coming up behind Shaun White. So board sports look to be heading into yet another slump in popularity.

Fourth, all four of these brands are inexorably tied to board sports. So, as the sports go down, so, too, go the fashion brands. They are simply unable to pivot to anything more fashion forward.

And therein lies the lesson for fashion brands. Leave yourself some space to kick out. Don’t get pigeon-holed into too tight a niche. A broader-based brand, one based on the California lifestyle, for instance, lets you go to surfer or snowboarder when trends allow, but give you other options when consumers tire of that look. Some fashion brands, like Ralph Lauren, have survived many iterations because they can design entire lines around the multiple activities of their target demographic. So Ralph Lauren has lines for horseback riding and opera attending. The board sports have brands for … boarding.

Oh, there will always be a surf style, such as it is. I’m not saying its impossible to ride a super-specific fashion swell to success. I’m just saying the gnarliest wave never lasts long. Enjoy it while you can – and be prepared to wait a long time for the next big one to come around.

Best Branding Reads – Week of April 11, 2016

 Brand Simplicity Rules The Day
Siegel+Gale’s been preaching simplicity for years.

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365 dares to tread where Fresh & Easy perished. Good luck.

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All you baby branders out there should check this out!

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Excellent article on how to leverage brands for change and growth.

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Tokyo’s second try at getting their logo together … a competition!

George Mason Renames Law School Following ‘Acronym Controversy’
More adventures in naming. I think Scalia would be laughing harder than anyone.

5 Rules For Creating Memorable Brand Experiences
Excellent guidelines. All brand managers should read this.

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