Can surf brands learn from skateboarding’s past?

Hang Five
Back in August 2013, following an $859 million loss posted for the previous financial year, the 40 year old Australian surf icon Billabong declared it’s brand “worthless”. Two other global big hitters, Quiksilver and Rip Curl have also been in hot water. Aside from the complexities associated with big business, what brand and image issues could have contributed to their woes?

Authenticity perhaps? Billabong opened around 600 retail outlets between 2005 and 2011, and concentrated a large amount of effort on getting their label into large department chains in order to open themselves up to the mainstream market. But as much as the ASP would like it to be, surfing isn’t a mainstream sport. Surely that’s actually what makes it exotic and appealing to people that might live thousands of miles from the ocean, or only visit the beach to sunbathe and drink piña coladas.

When you find Billabong shirts and Quiksilver boardshorts on the sale rails in Macy’s, something feels wrong. When you find dozens of shirt designs all fighting to mimic every (by now passé) trend running, something feels wrong. When you walk into a Billabong retail store in the mall and it smells like windex and the only surfboards are the ones hanging decoratively from the ceiling, something feels wrong.

In an authentic sport like surfing, it’s the authenticity that is key. The focus should always be the core user—the surfer—and let the romance and the realness of the sport do the rest, that’s what’s sexy to the average joe or joanne. Give them a beach not a golf course, give them a surf shop not a fashion boutique.

The troubles the big three have found themselves in makes me think of the dramatic shift skateboarding took in the late 80s and early 90s, when skaters left the vert ramps and the big contests and took to the streets. When the pros left from under the wing of corporations like Vision Street Wear and Powell Peralta, and defiantly started their own small companies. Not only had the style of skateboarding changed—the marketing, the design, the stage and the ethos had been completely flipped on it’s head. Skateboarding was getting back to being about skateboarding and skateboarders, and not simply about business.

In many ways this was simply a reset. Skateboarding had made a handful of skaters rock stars, put them on TV and paraded them around demos like pageant queens. But that wasn’t what skateboarding is really about. So, people like Steve Rocco and Mike Ternasky gave skaters what they wanted—skateboards and skate gear made by skateboarders, for skateboarders, and team riders that skated the same terrain they did—the streets. They brought back the skater attitude and they stuck a middle finger up at the big boys. This change crushed those large companies and changed the history and direction of the sport forever. Ironically, helping turn it into the multi-billion dollar sport it is today.

So, perhaps surf brands can look to learn something from skateboarding in the same way the sport itself has. It seems they’re trying, while Billabong declared their brand “worthless”, it’s obviously not and there’s no doubt some accounting decisions behind that move. Billabong is still an icon in the sport, the logo appears loud and proud on the boards of many top pros like Taj and Parko, and the company runs some of the largest contests on the tour, including the Pipe Masters. They have a pretty tight social media strategy running, and their clothing lines are looking much less mall and a lot more cool.

You can also now design your own Quiksilver boardshorts and Rip Curl has a ‘craft’ range that seems to want to grab a part of that authentic retro action you’d expect to see from a brand like Mollusk. But that already feels a little tired, that whole ‘handmade’ trend has been around for several years now, and while it no doubt still has some legs, I’d hope they’re busy looking for the next thing, which should always be about surfing. Whether they’re wanting to make clothes the Dave Rastovich’s of the world would wear, or making a wetsuit that will last a couple of seasons in Scotland, it should always be about surfing, never about the mall.

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