Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

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_.


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  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    The puns were exceptionally kicking in this post, Jenna! (Hee, see what I did there?)

    I didn’t know that Vans had tried to branch out into other athletic shoes. I’m glad that their new management fixed that quickly – it’s just another example of don’t fix what’s not broken. It would’ve been smarter (as they are doing now) to just expand the selection of slip ons.

    I don’t own a pair of Vans myself, but my brother and a bunch of my friends (all of them who are frequent attendees of Warped Tour) do. They’re brand loyalists to the core. As we know, I’m more of a Chuck Taylor kind of girl, but it’s interesting to see that both brands made similar problems when it came to management and spreading themselves too thin. I’m just glad that both are still around. I mean, what else would the cool kids at concerts wear?

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thanks, Mandy!

      I agree. I’m really glad that Vans stuck with what they do best. It’s so interesting how many blog posts/brands we can relate back to Krispy Kreme’s mistake!

      Chuck Taylor was pretty much one of Vans’ only competitors back in the 70s, but it’s good to see that both of them have been able to hold their own. Otherwise one of us would be a sad panda.

  2. amy

    This was such an interesting post, Jenna. I’ve known several people who’ve gone to the Vans Warped Tour in the summers and they’ve always said how much fun it was! Very cool. I’ve seen Vans around, but I don’t own a pair but slip on shoes always get a big thumbs up from me 😉

    I like that they’re focusing more on their customer base instead of over reaching themselves to uninterested markets. Very cool stuff!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thanks, Amy! I’m a huge fan of Warped Tour, but I’ve only actually attended twice. It is really fun though, and a great way for Vans to promote their brand. Even years that I didn’t attend, I talked about it with most of the people I knew all summer long, so that’s just more and more exposure for Vans! Vans has done an excellent job of feeding off of what their target customers want/need.

  3. Eric

    If you make something, make it well, and come to be known for it? No need to make anything else. I’m not a big shoe guy, but I’m big on sunglasses. You’ll never see Ray-Ban try to imitate Oakley or vice-versa. Maintaining a consistent image really is one of the best ways to maintain strength in a brand. Glad to see Vans has found their groove, too. Bonus points for Sean Penn-narrated skateboard documentaries. And slip-on kicks (which I may have to get a pair of myself).

    • Jenna Markowski

      PREACH! Ray-Ban is a really good example of a brand doing one thing extremely well. Plus, Ray-Bans look extremely cool when complimented with a pair of Vans!

      It doesn’t get much better than a Sean-Penn skateboard documentary, does it? And I highly recommend a pair of slip-ons! 🙂

  4. Jen

    I love my pink and black checkers!!! I bought them my senior year of high school and I wore them everywhere. I still have them too, although I cannot wear them because they don’t have toes anymore. 🙁 I just can’t part with them, they hold so many wonderful memories.

    I’ve been to the warped tour a few times and loved it, but it just not my thing now (the kids are just too rowdy these days for this old lady). Plus my bands don’t play shows for them anymore. Vans totally found their market with the Warped Tour though and they need to stick with it. 🙂 Great post Jenna, it really brought back some awesome memories!

  5. Kyle

    Awesome post, Jenna!

    I used to be really into skating and I’ve owned my share of Vans so seeing this post was a real treat. Sadly most of my friends that I used to “sesh” with have either gone away to college or have just lost interest in skating in general. :/

    I’ve since moved on to other things in life, but I’ll never forget everything that skating has offered me.

    P.S. That old school clip was totally rad dude! 😛

  6. Alex Brodsky

    There has always been only two types of shoes I’ve truly loved: My Chuck Taylors, and my VANS. The first time I put a pair of Vans on, I was sixteen and immediately fell in love. I was a skater/biker back then (I’ve hardly done either since I got a car), but I’m still planning on getting another pair of Vans next time I need shoes (or have extra money for shoes).

    Great throwback post!

  7. Jill Tooley

    Gotta love the puns! Nice work.

    I have a pair of tan-and-black Vans that have lasted me for years, and they’re super comfy. No complaints here! It’s great to hear that they’re still kicking with their branding after a few decades — many brands have fallen off the radar these past few years.

    Vans Warped Tour is genius. That move was probably one of the best (if not THE best) decision they ever made. They’re opening up so many doors by appealing to their target audience with live music! This just proves that music is an amazing unifier. 🙂

  8. ed izenstark

    I agree! I’m wearing vans now! My favorite pair of vans was worn to a bar last, where my friend and I got a lot of beverages… Then went to a car wash where she vomited.. I will always remeber that experience with those shoes!!

    Also I need to get my infant some vans. Jus sayn.

    Great article!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Yikes! I’m sorry to hear about your friend, that must have been a rough night, but at least you have those unforgettable memories with your Vans!

      And yes, you do!

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Ed! 🙂

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