Marketing & Branding

Off the Wall Branding: Vans Represents West Coast Skate and Surf

Paul Van Doren opened the doors of Van Doren Rubber Co. in 1966. Later, the company would come to be known simply as Vans. These canvas and rubber shoes have roots in old-school California skate and surf, and became popular during the skateboarding revolution of the mid-70s by Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta. Vans paid Alva and Peralta to wear their shoes so that when other kids saw Alva sporting a pair of blue and red #44s in the magazines, they would run out to the Vans store to get the same shoes as their role model.

A national craze began in ’82 when Sean Penn’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High rocked a pair of the infamous checkerboard slip-ons. Vans has gone through a few changes of management, tried expanding their market, and now over 40 years later they are going strong, sticking to what they do best.

In 1984, the company lost its footing (see what I did there?) when they tried to branch out from extreme sports shoes into specialty shoes for sports like basketball, baseball, and soccer. The bottom line was that the brand lost its focus and spread themselves too thin. Instead of targeting their niche extreme sports market and doing one thing exceptionally well, they began producing average-quality shoes for too many different audiences.

In an interview with Sneaker Freaker Steve Van Doren Jr., son of Vans’ co-founder, said, “All the money we were making on checkerboard, we were wasting it on all of these lasts, dyes, materials, everything you could imagine on these athletic shoes. And it wasn’t selling. People don’t know Vans for that. You got big powerhouses like Adidas, Nike and Puma and we were just getting our butts kicked on the athletic shoes.”

After Vans switched management in 1993 they refocused their brand on board sports and BMX. With a refocused image and snowboarding boots added into the mix, they were able to get back up on their feet. (The puns never end!)

The brand started turning a profit again for the first time in years during the 90s. It was at this point when Vans decided to get involved with Warped Tour, a huge summer music and skate festival.

Van Doren Jr. said, “Basically Vans is a company that sells to teenagers, 65% male and 35% female. What did a teenager do before he was 16 and could drive? He skateboards, he surfs, he rides bikes. Then he finds the sheila’s and needs a car to go do stuff. But both boys and girls like music, so we tied ourselves into a punk rock scene cause a lot of the guys that were in bands would wear Vans.” 

Vans couldn’t have possibly made a better decision. With this understanding of their target audience, the brand created an event that would draw in hordes of customers and brand advocates. Hundreds of thousands of teens flock to the Vans Warped Tour year after year. In addition to Warped Tour, they began sponsoring skate events.

Vans was back in full-tilt by 2001, and they helped sponsor the production of Stacy Peralta’s documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, a film that told the story of the skateboarding revolution led by skaters like Peralta, Alva, and the Zephyr skate team. (*FUN FACT: The documentary is narrated by Sean Penn, you know, the guy who made the checkerboards famous in ’82.) You can check out a clip below, and play a round of “I Spy” with all of the sweet old school shoes that make an appearance.

The folks over at Vans know that anyone wearing their shoes has stories to tell about all of the adventures, extreme tricks, and memories tied to their brand. To encourage discussion about the brand, they urge customers to go on their website and tell the story of their favorite shoes. The pictures and stories vary from people who were sporting Vans back in the 70s to parents buying their toddler’s first pair today.

Just like the legendary Z-boys, Vans has become known for their “cool,” unique style. Even with the addition of new materials like leather and suede, the brand continues to channel their original authentic, old school vibe. Today the company is going strong, continuing to produce quality products that represent the extreme style of the loyal supporters of the brand.

What do you think? Have you owned a pair of Vans? Which companies have earned your brand loyalty? What other advice do you have for this brand to appeal to their target audience?

Photos courtesy of _limoe, and _Nicole90_.