Edward M. O’Hara, chairman and senior partner of SME Inc., a strategic branding agency specializing in team and retail sports brands, believes that what makes many sports brands authentic, and therefore appealing to consumers, are the elements of “high performance, contemporary, and technologically innovative.” Throw into this mix unique, hip and more often than not youth-oriented, and you have many of the common ingredients today’s sports to lifestyle brands share.
Says O’Hara, “I think when [a sports brand] is based in performance, there’s a sense of realness and authenticity to the brand. You just can’t come out and say ‘I AM a sports-lifestyle brand.’ You have to earn it.”
Bill Carter, president and partner of Fuse Integrated Sports Marketing specializing in youth markets, cites Burton and Quiksilver as two successful sports to lifestyle brands very much targeted at young teens/young adults as their conscious core audience. Known for surfing, Quiksilver has broadened its reach from its core teen male/female buyer by adding fashion line extensions such as Quik Silver Edition to appeal to the 25-year-old buyer. In the case of snowboard brand Burton, he notes that the company is not highly concerned with older (in this case even 20- to 30-something-year-old) consumers. More recently, Burton has taken a somewhat similar approach to line extensions as Quiksilver, but as Carter puts it, they’re not as concerned with “identifying with the older target market.”
Authenticity may be a key factor as to why brands like Burton are shy of moving too far beyond their core audience. It’s one thing to sell items other than snowboards, bindings and boots to a teenager who isn’t a snowboarder; it can be quite another thing to sell it to the 38-year-old accountant non-snowboarder. Let’s face it, how real/cool/street is it to see your friend’s dad wearing the same brand as you around the house on a Sunday afternoon?
States SME’s O’Hara, “There are several brands that have moved away from the performance and the realness of the sport. If you look at all these brands, a lot of them have moved away to where they are really just a catalogue now [and are] leveraging the equity that they’ve built.”
Back to Tag Heuer. To retain its own authenticity in the sports realm, the company’s website prominently promotes its status as the official timekeepers of the Indy Racing League (IRL) and the Indy 500. Tiger Woods, the young Midas of golf pros, is one of several “brand ambassadors” alongside glamorous European models and actors. In 2003, TAG Heuer even opened its own Formula 1 driving school in the south of France, in partnership with AGS.
There is no question that what fuels the image of a sports to lifestyle brand is the media. Whether it’s ESPN showing the X-Games, an IMAX movie of extreme snow sports or a music video featuring rappers wearing adidas, the media can add extra layers of sizzle and cool that cannot necessarily be concocted behind closed doors in the strategy laboratory.
Since so much of the sports brand equation is innovative technology leading to high performance leading to victory, it only makes sense that aligning with a proven winner athlete is the way to promote the effectiveness and cachet of the brand. This can also be the greatest challenge to the younger or smaller company competing for endorsement deals for top athletes starting in the millions of dollars.
In 2003, David Beckham inked the most lucrative athlete endorsement deal to date with adidas for approximately US$ 160 million. Not bad considering golf pro Arnold Palmer effectively began the era of athlete endorsements by earning $20,000 in 1958.
The further appeal to top athlete endorsements is the aspect of the average Joe/Jane aspiring to be or do something greater. Says Peter Summersgill of Trinity R&D, a product development research firm, “I absolutely believe these brands are aspirational on the part of the consumers because most [people] are never going to be using that device—or whatever the item is—to the peak of its capabilities.”
If athletes like Beckham are out of reach, live and televised event sponsorships, team sponsorships and good old product placements are other tried and true methods of promoting the brand to a core audience and beyond. Product placements continue to be especially effective for reaching outside the sports brand’s core audience.
Few who saw the American movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1981) can forget actor Sean Penn playing a stoned-out surfer in his classic, checkerboard-print, slip-on Vans. Already well known in the skateboard and surf communities for its shoes, the movie brought this niche-specialty brand into the lives of millions of suburban kids who knew little to nothing about skateboarding. The shoes were hot, colorful, customizable and relatively expensive for the average 13-year old at the time. As a result of the exposure, Vans became a leader in extreme-sports footwear with brand loyalty so fierce, it reportedly thwarted attempts by Nike to gain market share for its own skateboard shoes.
Like fashion, the fickle tastes of consumers also extend to popularity of certain sports. At the height of Vans’ success, skateboarding’s popularity succumbed to BMX racing and didn’t re-emerge again until the mid-1990s, thanks in part to ESPN 2 and its coverage of skateboarding in its Extreme Games. Today Vans is back, proudly displaying its namesake retail stores in a suburban mall near you.
The other link to claiming lifestyle success is good old-fashioned viral marketing. Says Fuse’s Carter, “With a lot of brands I think the most effective way of marketing is word of mouth—especially in the youth and teens—that market likes to discover things on their own. They don’t necessarily gravitate to brands that have been dumped in their lap.”
If ever there was the greatest brand tale told, it is the story of Op’s (Ocean Pacific) transition from a surfboard maker in the 1960s to a fashion trendsetter of the 1970s—a phenomenon not previously heard of in the sports world.
In the 1970s and early 80s, Op’s trademark silky Hawaiian prints and boardshorts, which were designed for the surfer’s lifestyle in and out of the water, created an entire cultural movement based on the “West Coast Lifestyle.” The brand stayed authentic by consistently sponsoring top surfers and major surfing events promoting in particular the California surf scene. According to history, the impetus for Op’s obsolescence began with Op Pro’s morph from a top tier international surf event to bikini contests gone wild with surfing as a side note. The breaking point came in 1986 when riots erupted at the event, quickly turning the surf kings into has beens. By the company’s own website admission the perception of the brand by the next year was that it was “out of touch, over the hill, and interested more in expanding a massive distribution system than in serving core customers whom had built their brand.” While the licensing agreements for anything and everything Op were lucrative financially, the over-extension of the brand tore its image down. By 2001, the brand had just two athletes endorsing it.
Under the tutelage of its new CEO, Dick Baker, a veteran of Esprit and Tommy Hilfiger, the company has regained some if its lost footing after many unsuccessful prior attempts and is leveraging its equity as the “first of” sports to lifestyle brands. Like Quiksilver and Burton, the company recently launched a new brand called Seven2 to appeal to more fashion-forward street styles and launched a line extension called Ocean Pacific label for its older audience of 25 to 45 year olds. Wetsuits, fragrances, home furnishings and electronics are, according to its website, other areas of brand expansion.
While there was a 40 percent sales increase between 2002 and 2003 since the arrival of Baker, the question remains will the brand fully resurrect itself or fall victim once more to over-extension and dilution? We can start to worry when we purchase a new dining room set from Op.