“If the last twenty years have been about working the big markets, the next five will be about working the small.” At least that’s what Bonfire Founder and President Brad Steward believes–and he’s making good on his hunch.
Bonfire recently reached out to the Central European market like never before when it held an invite-only line presentation at ISPO, followed by flying in 21 top snowboard dealers from Germany and the Low Countries to the Soltex show in Manchester, England for another extensive line presentation, dinner, and blowout party.
“We’re trying to establish a Central European operation for Bonfire,” says Steward. “The reason we chose the UK for our office is that we’ve become a extremely successful brand there. In fact, we’re nipping at the heels of Burton and it’s likely we’ll pass them because of this office. Everyone looked at the size of the UK market and said ‘let’s not bother with it.’ And I think that’s an incredible mistake.”
The Bonfire offices will be located in London and will share some of the resources with other Adidas brands. The talent pool is top notch, with Salomon UK Director James Curleigh and four-time UK freestyle champ Mark Webster throwing their support behind the launch.
But it’s a go-slow approach for now. According to Steward, last year’s collapse of high-end market in Germany made having a small market strategy a no-brainer, “At least for my third-grader mentality,” he says. “And if it works there, it should work everywhere.”
Steward says that with a pan-European distribution and pricing strategy, having the office in the UK makes sense. “A lot of Salomon’s image comes out of London,” says Steward, who traveled there twelve times last year. “It’s kind of a cool place to look at the whole thing. It’s definitely not Innsbruck, which is the European equivalent of Burlington.”
The friendly competition Steward has with Burton peppers his speech and seems to drive his strategy: “We’ve really fought to be a credible alternative to Burton. I respect them and what they’ve done with the brand, but I’m not a guy from Vermont–I’ve never connected to that thing. People want an alternative.”
Steward believes part of what makes Bonfire the best alternative is the brand’s connection to the American market. The UK is the closest jumping-off point to North America, which will continue to be where the brand calls home.
“Our goal is to bring something different to the European market,” says Steward. “In the same way Levi’s is an American brand, we want to show the European market what being an American snowboarding brand is all about. And that’s pretty unique. Even when you see a Burton jacket in Europe you notice that they’ve painted it with a European image.
“We don’t want to subvert our American cache,” continues Steward, indicating the need for a hands-on approach directly from Bonfire. “Communicating to our European dealers the cultural differences of being a small hardcore brand was very difficult to manage through the existing subsidiary structure,” he continues. “We decided we weren’t going to launch the Bonfire brand in Europe until we knew it was going to be done the right way. It’s like the Orson Wells approach of we’ll sell no wine before it’s time.”
Steward says having an office in the widely proclaimed style capital of the world also provides certain advantages. “What’s interesting is during the London Fashion Week, Team Manager Ben Pruess and I were the only snowboarders there. What I’m trying to do has broad implications. We want to be able to call the editors of Vogue and tell them what is authentic–really help them know that snowboarding apparel it’s isn’tt about DKNY, Calvin Klein, and Polo.”
Although the launch of the European office took place in Manchester, an hour plane ride from the office’s location in London, the entire event appeared to be a success. The assembled retailers from Germany gave their frank appraisal of the line, expressing which pieces were best suited to their shops, and Bonfire showed them lots of hospitality with a tequila-soaked dinner and blowout part with the band Nojakota, which recently signed with Sony.
In aftermath of the party, Bonfire left with not only better relations with some key German accounts, but a bar tab that proved what a good time the previous night’s debauchery was.
“Technically the office has been up and running,” says Steward. “We’ve been selling in the UK four years, but this will be the first formal step out to the continent. It’s a small step, it won’t be a horn-blowing exercise at all, but it’s definitely an important step for us to take.”–Sean O’Brien