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Vans Masters Communication with the Skater-Shoe Market
For most people, surfing and skateboarding come to mind immediately when they think of southern California culture. For 40 years, Vans has embodied the California lifestyle and remains one of the preeminent skater-shoe companies. Founded in Los Angeles in 1966 by Paul Van Doren, his brother Steve, and Belgian investor Serge D'Elia, Vans quickly became a staple in southern California. Starting with a few versions of the traditional lace-up deck shoe sold out of a factory, the style of shoe became popular almost immediately. Vans rapidly increased its level of popularity by customizing shoes in all different fabrics and designs. The Van Dorens secured their local customized shoe business by selling plaid shoes to Catholic schools and sneakers with school colors to high school athletes. But when the checkered slip-on was donned by Sean Penn and his surfer buddies in the fi lm Fast Times at Ridgemont High, skaters all over the country were demanding their own pairs of Vans. The shoes went from local wear to an iconic symbol in just a few years.
Contrary to many corporate success stories, the Vans company never spent much money on marketing. Paul Van Doren knew that he offered a superior product, and he relied on word of mouth to popularize the high-quality, extremely durable shoes. The most marketing Van Doren did at first was to have his children canvas their neighborhood with flyers. At all early Vans stores, signs encouraged customers to "tell a friend about Vans."
For years, Van Doren focused mostly on the manufacturing aspect of the company so that even with a minimal amount of advertising, popularity grew because Vans were, quite simply, quality shoes. It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when manufacturing was taken overseas, that Vans turned its attention to marketing.
One of Vans' earliest forays into promotion came about by chance. As skateboarders began to discover Vans shoes, the company responded by creating styles more amenable to skating. With their skater following growing, Vans paid a few top skaters a few hundred dollars apiece to wear its shoes at skating events. In 1989, Vans produced its first signature skateboarding shoe, the Steve Caballero shoe. Since then, Vans has partnered with numerous athletes, such as Geoff Rowley, who has the best-selling signature Vans shoe to date, and Johnny Layton.
As skateboarding culture has continued to flourish over the decades, Vans' connection to the scene has remained strong. Vans' marketing and promotional team focuses on spreading interest in Vans by doing its best to remain plugged into the youth culture and fueling teenage interest in Vans products. To this end, the company advertises through print, online, TV, and sporting and music events. Currently, the key to Vans' marketing strategy is developing advertising partnerships with athletes, artists, and media outlets. People immersed in this culture want to own Vans products. Vans is not just a shoe; it is a lifestyle. Young extreme-sports athletes, like skaters and surfers, remain Vans' most important customer base. In 1995, Vans hosted its first Triple Crown event. The Triple Crown spotlights skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, BMX, FMX, and wakeboarding. Tony Hawk won the skateboarding competition that first year and has since become a household name. Also in 1995, Vans launched its first annual Warped Tour, blending skating with music through concerts and competitions. This use of integrated marketing allows Vans to build brand recognition, cement its integral place in the skating lifestyle, and connect with customers via giveaways and promotions, such as designing custom shoes.
In addition to events, Vans connects with its audience through magazine advertisements, television, and the Internet, especially to attract young female consumers, who represent a growing part of the Vans customer base. In the past, the company has partnered with magazines like Teen Vogue and CosmoGirl to reach the female demographic. Vans also collaborates with musicians, artists, and designers to increase brand awareness through sponsorships, music tours, and videos.
More recently, Vans has embarked upon digital marketing initiatives. For instance, Vans promotes itself through mobile apps that its fans can download in order to access Vans-related news. The company has also created a customizer on its website that allows customers to design their own pair of Vans shoes and have them delivered. Although it is more than 40 years old, Vans still connects with youth culture as well as ever-and shows no signs of slowing down.
Why were the early Vans marketing activities related to skateboard shoes so successful?