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Brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren opened a store on March 16, 1966 at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California. They made shoes straight from their shop and named their young venture the Van Doren Rubber Company.
On the opening day, they sold 12 pairs. And 50 years later, this company is better known as Vans and has annual sales of $ 11.8 billion.
This is the story of how they became one of the greatest shoe brands in the world and what marketers can learn from them.
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The formula for a successful influencer program
In the early 1970s, a group of surf rats redefined the emerging sport of skateboarding. They were known as the Z Boys – their nickname is derived from the Zephyr Surf Shop in Santa Monica, which sponsored them in surf competitions. The Z Boys, consisting of 12 core members, dominated the skate competitions with their innovative interpretation of the sport. They took their surfing style to the cement and vented and carved.
They kept wearing their shoes – until they got their hands on the Van Doren Rubber Company shoes. Because of the robustness of the shoes, they became indispensable for skateboarders. The Van Dorens saw an opportunity with the Z Boys. They started sponsoring them.
Her first endorsement deal was with Stacy Peralta, a young personality who later started the Powell Peralta skateboard company. He was given $ 300 to wear the shoes only in competitions.
It's the biggest $ 300 endorsement ever.
Vans didn't stop there. The brothers wanted to make the best possible shoe for the skaters. Her shoe no. 95 has been reinterpreted with contributions from Peralta and his teammate Tony Alva. A thicker sole was added to make landings smoother. They reinforced the heel, added padding around the collar, and put extra rubber over the toes.
The modified # 95 is known today as the Vans Era. It has remained practically unchanged for over 30 years.
The Era is the first shoe designed and made by skateboarders.
Vans worked with the drivers on his team and developed signature shoes. The company promoted the team with full-page advertisements. Peralta and his compatriots became superstars. Skateboarding went from counterculture to mainstream, along with Vans.
Van Doren's marketing genius lay in their investment in the influencers of their time (i.e. athletes). Sponsoring athletes and influencers wasn't new. How the Van Dorens approached that was. They've teamed up with and then worked with the top influencers on everything from products to advertisements.
The formula was simple: target relevance + long-term cooperation = successful influencer program.
Related: Are Influencers Worth Your Money? We went undercover to find out
Vans was a small company. The great celebrities of the era were professional baseball or soccer players and actors. These were people Vans could never have afforded, and it wouldn't have been a wise investment. The company would have competed with a host of other sports brands for the same goal.
When it came to skateboarding, Vans recognized something before anyone else: an underserved niche – one that happened to have a passion for their product. They were brave enough to risk their small marketing budget and invest in the rising stars of skateboarding.
Could the lessons of Vans' success be applied today?
Let's do an exercise by looking at another category with roots in the action sports world that targets a similar demographic: energy drinks.
What names come to mind when you think of energy drinks? You've probably thought of Red Bull and Monster. You may have remembered Rockstar.
These three brands have dominated the category for the past two decades. They also operated the same promotional playbook. They sponsor the biggest names in extreme sports. They do awesome content and advertise as hell for guys in their teens and twenties.
So where is the opportunity to implement the formula used by Vans?
Target relevance + long-term cooperation = successful influencer program.
Let's start with the goal. Ask yourself, "Who's Most Relevant for Teens and Twenty Today?"
It is no longer an extreme sport. Today it's sport. Playing is becoming more and more popular. There are half a billion people who identify as esports fans or enthusiasts. Video game sales in the US are projected to reach $ 230 billion by 2022.
An upstart in the energy drinks category identified this gap between what young people are interested in today and where the established energy drink companies advertise.
That company is GFuel. The New York-based company was founded in 2014 and works with the most credible names in the industry. They created their own Z Boys in the form of Team Gamma, their exclusive list of players.
Team Gamma is the crème de la crème of the esports and influencer world. It contains PewDiewPie, the largest YouTube channel operated by an individual. PewDiePie, known for its "Play with Me" style videos, has over 106 billion YouTube subscribers and nearly 27 billion views worldwide.
GFuel developed a complete line of products with FaZe Clan, one of the most dominant esports teams. The FaZe-Clan turned gaming into a lifestyle brand. The team's players live together in an LA mansion, each with huge YouTube channels and elbows with celebrities. The FaZe Clan counts professional athletes, rappers and even Lady Gaga's former manager Troy Carter as investors.
Team Gamma has nearly 100 other members with equally impressive pedigrees, a large audience, and credibility in the sport.
Both Vans and GFuel identified the most credible personalities relevant to their audiences. Both went a step further.
Related: 5 Reasons Influence Is More Important Than Brand Awareness
Vans was farsighted when working with skaters. Peralta didn't wear vans in a competition or advertisement – he wore them in all of his competitions. Vans asked skaters not only to promote their products, but to develop them together.
The Van Dorens took feedback from Peralta and Alva and developed signature shoes for their team riders. They intertwined the brand with the personalities who drive the sport.
Would you take input from an influencer? Would you build a product around them like Vans did?
GFuel does that with Team Gamma.
In collaboration with the FaZe-Clan, GFuel launched a beverage mix with pineapple flavor and powder powder called FaZe Clan's Battle Juice, as well as four ready-to-drink flavors. In collaboration with PewDiewPie, GFuel launched PewDiePie Lingonberry with its branding on the can. The company partnered with British YouTuber / gamer / boxer / musician KSI to bring a new Strawberry Banana flavor to the market. In early 2020, GFuel met one of the most popular streamers, Dr. Dispect, teamed up to launch the Black on Blackberry GFuel Can. The list goes on – GFuel has partnered with influencers to create myriad other flavors and products.
Related Topics: How To Position Your Product In A Niche Market
Team Gamma pays off. The strategy has made GFuel the fastest growing energy drink company as interest has exploded.
GFuel followed the same strategy as Vans in choosing not to go with a one-time recommendation or a single ad with a big influencer. GFuel employees have teamed up with members of Team Gamma to develop exclusive product lines. They reinterpreted what worked for Vans in the 70s for today's digital landscape.
Where would Vans be today if Peralta had been paid to wear the company's shoes in just one competition or just run one ad? Vans benefited from the star power of Peralta and other skaters to the point that skateboarding and vans became synonymous.
I can't imagine Vans could have gotten to a $ 11.8 billion a year mark any other way.
Much of the advertising industry has recognized influencers as an advertising channel. Most advertisers, however, pay influencers to write a post and then move on. The formula that we know works cannot be applied.
So when developing your own influencer programs, ask yourself, "Am I thinking about this long term? Am I using the formula that has worked so well for other brands?"
This formula again: target relevance + long-term cooperation = successful influencer program.