When the Van Doren family established Vans in 1966, their goals were simple, yet radical for businesses of that age.
The Californian-based company simply sought to manufacture footwear and sell them directly to customers.
Promising as that proposition was, the first days of Vans were comically bad. Apparently, the owners didn’t have cash on hand for change, and had to ask their customers to pay the next day (which they did by the way).
As if a glutton for punishment, in the 1970s, Vans began to market its shoes to skateboarders, the cultural lepers of sun-kissed California.
Yet, that decision blossomed into commercial and branding success.
Since then, Vans has vigorously projected a brand image of subversion, creativity, and self-fulfilment. Its jazz-striped shoes have attained cult status among its loyal fan-base.
Let’s take a look then, at how Vans achieved and maintained both its renegade image and contrarian clientele.
1. Taking risks — Vans dared to champion rising subcultures over the mainstream
In the 1970s, Vans capitalized on two emerging crazes in Southern California: skateboarding and to a lesser extent, bicycle motocross (BMX).
Members of these sports and their surrounding cultures were often depicted as unconventional and anti-establishment.
Indeed, skateboarding, for instance, was more than just a sport. “Skateboarding wasn’t a passing fancy,” proclaimed Thrasher magazine, “it was a lifestyle choice”.
Vans’ footwear quickly became a favourite among skateboarders, who requested new designs, colours, patterns, and textures.
The famous ‘Style 38’ (or Sk8-Hi) Vans shoes. Image courtesy of Vans.com.
In response, Vans introduced new models of its shoes and sneakers, including its iconic ‘Old Skool’, ‘The Era’, and ‘Style 38’ series. These sets of footwear were not only aesthetically eccentric, but also ergonomically built. They were durable, and provided superior flexibility, grip, and ankle support.
The company nurtured its relationship with skateboarding, BMX, and other alternative action-sports, thus sowing the seeds of its enduring association with youth, adventure, and self-expression.
2. Unintentional product placement and Hollywood
In 1982, Vans shoes featured in the film, Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
Sean Penn’s character, a rebellious surfer-skater-musician, can be seen sporting Vans’ Classic Slip-Ons.
This however, wasn’t a planned case of product placement. Penn fell in love with the shoes, insisting he wear them on camera.
The movie, itself a cult hit, helped popularized the shoes, and turned Vans into a counter-cultural phenomenon.
Interestingly, the Slip-Ons’ history exemplified the close engagement between Vans and its customers.
The shoes’ chequered-board design was inspired by fans colouring the waffled soles of their Vans sneakers. Noticing this fad, Vans honoured it by shifting the design to the shoes’ outward exteriors.
3. “The Age of Customization” — Remembering your roots and embracing diversity and customer participation
Throughout the decades, Vans has quickly adapted to changing fashion fads and cultural trends.
Vans footwear has formed the uniform of skateboarders, BMXers, punk rockers, street artists, snowboarders, comic book enthusiasts, and even students.
The appeal of Vans to this diverse congregation is perhaps, a deserved culmination of company ethos and astute marketing.
Specifically, Vans has, from the start, conferred onto its customers a considerable degree of control over its products (e.g. color, style, materials, function).
In this way, Vans has managed to stay true to its heritage and embrace innovation and creativity. According to Laura Doherty, Vans’ public relations manager, the company is “rooted in skateboarding but [has] become a youth culture brand”.
4. Social media and celebrity collaboration
Unsurprisingly, as any “youth culture brand” would do, Vans maintains a prolific presence on major social media platforms, such as Instagram, Vine, and Twitter.
What’s interesting about Vans’ social media accounts is that they’re image-heavy.
Its Instagram account is littered with beautiful photos of Vans products, and the evocative lifestyles of its wearers.
Similarly, on Twitter, Vans uploads original footage of its gallivanting staff and the celebrities that work with them.
In addition to social media, Vans has a successful (and selective) record of collaborations.
“We say no to things more often than we say yes […] [and] that includes collaborations,” declared Kevin Bailey, the president of the action sports division of VF corporation, Vans’ parent company.
For Vans, collaborations must involve figures that align with Vans’ values and image.
For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, Vans was the first to sponsor well-known skateboarders, paying them to wear its shoes in competitions and public.
“They were the only company at that time that would pay us, the skateboarders, any money whatsoever,” said Stacy Peralta, a skateboarding legend. This earned Vans a passionate group of influential brand advocates.
Skateboarders aside, Vans has also collaborated with popular rock bands like Metallica and Bullet For My Valentine.
Indicative of Vans’ pursuit for greater inclusivity, it teamed up with well-known violinist Lindsey Stirling in 2013.
This careful approach to collaboration keeps Vans relevant, influencing its fans to emulate its associated image and celebrities.
5. No substitute for human contact — the importance of events marketing
In 1995, Vans launched the Warped Tour, now North America’s longest-running music festival.
The tour has launched the careers of Eminem, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and My Chemical Romance, to name a few.
Despite its unruly connotations, the Warped Tour is probably one of the more wholesome concert options out there. Parents are able to attend shows for free when they accompany their kids. And ticket and beverage price remain shockingly affordable.
These features enables Vans to connect with younger audiences, thereby ensuring the brand’s survival through and for future generations.
- Capitalize on rising trends and subcultures.
- If possible, feature your products in films that embody your values and target similar audiences.
- Let your customers participate in how you create your products.
- Be selective in who you collaborate with.
- Nothing can replace human contact, not even the Internet. Event marketing matters.
Read next: Footwear Referral Program Examples: Greats
Hydar reads History at Nanyang Technological University. He likes cats and Cersei Lannister.
Case study: Vans
Understand your brand and you will understand what your target market wants: a spotlight on the Vans content marketing campaign.
How does a brand or product become actually synonymous with culture, expression, a state of mind?
The Vans brand
The Vans brand has aligned with skate culture since its inception in 1966. Initially, the Vans shoe had the thickest sole, the best grip and the most resilient stitching amongst its competitors. It therefore quickly became the go-to skating shoe for many of the skaters in the first wave of the scene.
From these beginnings, already so well entwined with a niche culture, Vans quickly spread to other sporting communities including surfing and snowboarding. This strong affiliation with these ultra-cool youth scenes were enhanced and driven home through organic and natural associations with the most desirable and established figures of the time.
Already we can see Vans became more than just a shoe through these methods, their brand actually became a signifier of this specific culture. People who wore Vans were automatically associated with the cool kids from the skating, surfing and snowboarding scene.
Currently, we can see Vans reach has broadened to represent youth culture as a whole. It has seamlessly and fundamentally encroached upon the youth of today, acting as a kind of rite-of-passage.
Implementing the strategy
This deep cultural affiliation didn’t happen accidentally. Though their brand management is flawless, it is also extremely and intricately managed. Don’t be fooled by their easy going, carefree persona – every single piece of content that is produced by Vans has an exceptionally well-thought-out strategy behind it.
From it’s secure and well established position within the youth sporting culture, Vans expanded to partner with musicians and other creative artists growing their sphere of influence on culture as a whole. This is where their brand management becomes rather interesting.
Vans have been a major sponsor of the longest running North American touring music festival, Vans Warped Tour since 1996. This partnership really cemented the idea that Vans is far more than just a skate shoe. This idea was further established with the opening of House of Vans, described on the website as the “physical manifestation of the culture and creativity that have defined the Vans brand since 1966.” The space constantly hosts music, art and education events attracting local and worldwide talent in their respective fields. This once again proves that the Vans brand transcends shoes and is fundamentally involved with culture.
This exceptional brand management has been translated seamlessly into the digital realm through content marketing. Currently, Vans have 3.8 million follows on Instagram and 15.3 million likes on their Facebook page. The majority of the content shared through these avenues is not directly about their product. Instead, Vans share and produce content that represents their culture. These present themselves as videos and photos of skaters, surfers, events and charities that intrinsically represent the cool, youth culture that Vans sell along with rubber soled sneakers.
How content marketing is a major player in the Vans advertising campaign
An especially interesting content marketing strategy came about through the #livingoffthewall project. On their website, Vans present this official slogan as a state of mind, “thinking differently. Embracing creative self-expression. Choosing your own line on your board and in your life.” For the #livingoffthewall project, Vans enlisted a group of story-tellers and documentary makers to create a growing list of short documentaries sharing “people, places and things that best illustrate such a commitment to originality” that best represents the Vans brand. These videos are simply collated in a Vans sponsored space, they do not inherently promote the Vans brand or product, and there is no clever script writing or false organic promotion. Vans simply support and sponsor the creation of authentic and creative content that is shareable and valuable to their target audience.
Vans draw from a long-standing understanding of their target audience and their product. They have always sold shoes, but they sold shoes that had significant meaning to an increasingly large group of people. With this cult following in mind, meaningful content production is extremely necessary. Content should be specific to each brand and each target audience. The Vans audience are curious about creativity, music, art, skating, surfing, and interesting people within these fields and so the #livingoffthewall project simply produced content about this.
These videos have been viewed thousands of times each and have been shared across various Facebook pages. By creating interesting and engaging content, target audiences are far more likely to engage and share with their own sphere of online influence.
Often companies fall into the trap of believing their products, treatments, services or offers must be directly presented to their potential buyers explicitly. However, from the ongoing example of the Vans content marketing strategy we can see that a thorough understanding of brand and culture and producing content that aligns with this is an interesting, engaging and useful method of promoting your product. Young people are spending more and more of their time online and they are increasingly aware of advertising strategies and ploys. Vans utilized this by creating content that is actually desired and longed for by their potential buyers rather than interrupting them with incessant advertisement pop ups. Creating organic, authentic and desirable content is the essence of content marketing.
Andrew Davis, the author of Brandscaping, describes the process of content marketing this way, “Content builds relationships. Relationships are built on trust. Trust drives revenue.” We can truly see this at play through the Vans content marketing story.