The best branding lessons are often learned not taught, and from observing real life success stories. In this blink of a brand story, we seek to understand how evergreen brands — like Vans — are built. Building blocks like engagement, connectedness and loyalty add up to a sum of many parts and are the foundation to a brand’s long-term success.At its core, brand loyalty is borne out of a strong and sticky relationship between a brand and its customer. Brands are built on many things including trust, inspiration and connection — which is often subtle and subconscious.
Like Vans, supposedly an outlier skater brand but yet spotted on many a mainstream foot ranging from hey-girl millennials to office-workers to suburban housewives. Because even though Vans’ product-based skater origins were deliberate and niche, over many decades Vans has enjoyed widespread appeal spanning age groups, mindsets and continents.
So what is it about Vans, a California borne $3 billion cult-brand powerhouse, that keeps on skating on, and well outside the skate park?
Brand story kicks off with product design
The Vans’ journey started in Anaheim, California, in 1966 with 12 pairs of shoes manufactured onsite on day one which were collected later that day. This was Vans’ very beginning for brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren and partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, who unknowingly set afoot the Vans global brand success story.
Conceived by skateboarders for skateboarders, its innovative sticky waffle pattern rubber sole designed for better grip, proved to be a huge hit among dedicated skateboarders. This authentic understanding of its core market, delivered superior product design, and built enormous trust and connectedness among Vans early adopters. And within only a few years, by the early 1970s, Vans could be spotted all over Southern California — the epicentre of skateboarding.
Brand journey navigates back to its core
Fast forward more than 50 years from those 12 pairs of shoes in Anaheim, Van’s brand history includes collaborating with early skateboarding legends Z-Boys’ Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva, to accidental product placement in the Sean Penn 1980s movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, to listing on the Nasdaq, to design collaborations with Marc Jacobs, Metallica and Disney. But in between the the highs there were also lows.
In 1984, Vans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This resulted in a leadership reshuffle which then steered the company back on course. By the early 2000s Vans was faced with a new threat — brand irrelevance — as more modern cushioned designs entered the competitive landscape. So attention reverted back to Vans’ origins in design, as a reset of strategic direction under the leadership of Vans’ footwear designer Rian Pozzebon. In order to move forward Vans needed to look backward with a renewed focus on product design, and specifically a vintage piece.
Ironically, it was arguably this resetting back to Vans’ original narrower product based values through the vintage piece that resonated across broader market segments who seeked out those same free-spirited authentic skater values.
Brand values serve as the roadmap
Van’s brand values seemingly proved to be its north star to long-term brand survival and strength. And through Vans’ unique brand evolution, core customers remained loyal because Vans managed to remain true to its early beginnings and circled back to its core values of ‘connectedness, determination, inclusivity, expressive and fun.’
Steve Van Doren, original founder Paul’s son and Van’s vice president of events and promotions best sums up this successful circling back: “We’re not trying to create what we think people want us to be. We try to go out and stay who we are, and try to notch up. You’re not going to see us, as long as I’m around, having a basketball shoe or a football cleat. We did in the early ‘80s; we had football, basketball, racquetball, wrestling, skydiving, break-dancing… But we almost went out of business. So we had to come back to earth and get back to what we do. And we learned that lesson well.”
So while Van’s starting point and consistent focus may have been rooted in design, consistently delivering on its original brand promise, Vans’ brand longevity and broad appeal taps into a mainstream and timeless psyche yearning for freedom and authenticity. While the brand connection is more obvious for the sunrise surfer, for the rest of us, our relationship with Vans is a subtle and collective nod to the free-spirit that lives inside.
Creative Mix helps clients build brands through a blend of modern marketing solutions. To chat more about crystalising your brand values, identity and positioning, make contact today.