Soap Box: Holden Hume, Verb Design

By Holden Hume, creative director of Verb Design & Advertising

As snowboarding appeals to more people, snowboard companies are eagerly exploring new marketing avenues, a wider-market focus, and co-op opportunities to reach changing consumer profiles.

But now more than ever, snowboard brands should remain true to their brand identity and not sacrifice it to the false god of a bigger market.

Before the veterans of the snowboard industry get all hyped about what's 'core and what's not, remember that my definition of a “True” snowboarding market isn't about what's cool or uncool. It's not how long a boarder has ridden or whether a kid wears the latest logo on his jacket. All it takes to be in the True snowboard market is a desire to ride.

The Danger

It's the milking of the fringe markets–those people who don't care about riding but could be talked into it if they thought it would earn them “cool guy” points–that threatens to dilute the True snowboard market.

Boardroom-driven corporations that waltz into snowboarding and demand growth in the sport so they can make their profit margins on volume are in danger of killing the very experience that makes it all possible.

Skiing wasn't meant to support the weight of mega-corporations, and when it was forced to try, it lost. Are we propping up snowboarding as the next sport to milk dry?

All the business-suit guys can stop ruffling their feathers at me, because I'm in this to make a living, too–as is anyone who reads SNOWboarding Business. But the fact remains, resisting some of this change is not crazy or shortsighted. In fact, it may be the right business decision.

If you think about it, staying True to the original snowboard experience is the conservative approach. It's conservative to stay committed to snowboarders as a group, whether you're a ten-year-old hardcore brand or a new mega-corporate entity. Protect existing markets before chasing new ones.

Snowboard marketing has a history of being in a race to see who can change the fastest. That speed of change once was about new and creative ideas–some of it still is. That change is part of what put vitality and excitement into the marketing of the sport.

Lately however, marketing trends have revolved around courting the promised riches of a “new wide market.” As an industry, we've been looking for the bunt instead of the home run. We've been pushing technology over lifestyle and gentrifying the snowboard ghetto. Maybe it was unavoidable; we certainly all saw it coming.

But we should be careful not to alienate the existing snowboard audience. The committed snowboarder still drives consumer opinion and his brand loyalty is valuable. If you abandon him, he may abandon you.

Snowboarding took an ailing wintersport market by storm, not just because snowboarding is so fun, but because it offers an experience skiing had long forgotten. Those things that made snowboarding exciting and successful are still compelling to consumers now. Things like fun, freedom, soul, commitment, legitimacy, and an infectious desire to ride.

If the things that brought mass appeal to snowboarding are those aspects that made it different than the “regular world,” why trip over ourselves to become the next “techy” bike industry or the next “family vacation” ski industry?

Snowboarding has something special. Something every industry thapicked up on snowboarding's image or developed a snowboard-style promotion in the last five years wants. The longer we hold onto that snowboarding Truth, the longer it will take for snowboarding to become tired, diluted, and uninteresting as a sport. It's okay to be the snowboard industry. We don't need to grow out of it, and there's danger in trying to do so.

Without snowboarding's emotion-based appeal to vertical markets, our original audience may lose interest. They're the original participants, the trend makers. And without their drive and fervor, the wide audience will lose interest, too. These are the people who are interested in finding the thing that the 'core audience likes so much.

If we try to become more like the less-defined “wide market” and forsake the things that make the snowboard market unique, we lose everyone, instead of slowly gaining everyone. Success for the industry might be about knowing who we are, and keeping the important parts of who we are intact.

There are a lot of new consumers to be reached. It's certain that not all of them will be reached in the traditional snowboard medium or in promotion styles familiar to snowboarding's past. That's okay because the new riders are coming for the same thing the original riders came for.

So, approach future snowboard marketing with confidence. Create a company environment that reflects the fun and excitement of the sport. Have experienced industry people make marketing decisions. Have faith in your insider ability to judge what's real and fun for snowboarders. Pay attention to your own people and the people you meet on the mountain, and you'll be a year ahead of the market research and focus groups a big agency wants to sell you. Their research is about things you live every day.

It Really Is All About Fun

Considering recent marketing trends in snowboarding, there are interesting parallels to other sports. Some may have positive aspects, but none are an adequate replacement for what snowboarding already has as an image.

When snowboarding adopted a lifestyle-driven skateboard and surf-style mentality a few years back, it exploded with creativity and rocketed forward as an emerging industry. For the last couple of years, we've seen snowboarding loitering in the shadows of the technically driven bike and ski markets as the remaining super-brands try to out-tech each other.

Following that path, snowboarding could develop a technically driven image like the bike industry, where product innovation is above all else, and image revolves around the latest feature/benefit that nobody really asked for.

Or we could become as static as skiing was before the free-ski revolution, when little skier recognition existed, and image revolved around fashion statements, highly structured competitions, and family vacations.

In their defense, skiing is retreating from this gray existence as fast as their parabolics will let them. The emergence of Freeze magazine in the ski industry and Bike magazine in the mountain-bike industry indicates that someone knows they've strayed too far from the motivations of their 'core markets.

Snowboarding can avoid going there in the first place if decision makers will stand by what has attracted an ever-increasing number of participants to the sport: fun, excitement, involvement, freedom, youth, lifestyle, and a vital attachment to the sport.

So, maybe the ultimate “what if” is the ultimate irony. What if, in order to support continued growth and ravenous consumer demand for snowboarding, snowboard companies decided to keep marketing themselves as, well, snowboard companies?

I'm not proposing anarchy or revolution. We've all been doing this long enough to know it's a business as well as a lifestyle. I'm only proposing that you do what any concerned business owner can do.

Voice your belief in the value of snowboarding as a lifestyle sport so we can all be in this business long after brands with short-term mindsets are gone.

Retailers should support brands that are in it for the long haul and treat opportunites for growth with respect. The success of these responsible brands may be the key to the industry's health. Tell the new corporate giants that you prefer them to market the sport in ways that have made it what it is today.

I no longer believe brands have inherent “'core” value. Most brands I would have associated with being “real snowboard brands” have been bought, merged, or otherwise changed from their original ownerships.

But it's not too late to keep the identity of snowboarding as a lifestyle sport intact. Decisions on how and where to promote growth in the market are mostly in the hands of manufacturers that advertise nationally (rather than shops that advertise locally). But these decisions will be made by individuals, not by brands. Those individuals are called marketing directors.

Call the ones who handle the brands your shop buys. Tell them you believe in snowboarding as a lifestyle sport. Tell them we already have a ski industry and a bike industry, and we don't need another one. We just need to keep being snowboarders.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––

What Do You Think?

We hope this column has sparked some of your own ideas about the changing nature of the snowboarding industry. If you would like to discuss topics such as these with Hume and dozens of other industry experts like him, join the Snowboarding Industry On-line Roundtable. This is a private, moderated discussion group available only to those working in the snowboard industry. To join, e-mail your name, title, and company name to sean@twsnet.com. If you want to e-mail Hume at Verb Design & Advertising, contact him at: action@verbdna.com.

snowboard companies decided to keep marketing themselves as, well, snowboard companies?

I'm not proposing anarchy or revolution. We've all been doing this long enough to know it's a business as well as a lifestyle. I'm only proposing that you do what any concerned business owner can do.

Voice your belief in the value of snowboarding as a lifestyle sport so we can all be in this business long after brands with short-term mindsets are gone.

Retailers should support brands that are in it for the long haul and treat opportunites for growth with respect. The success of these responsible brands may be the key to the industry's health. Tell the new corporate giants that you prefer them to market the sport in ways that have made it what it is today.

I no longer believe brands have inherent “'core” value. Most brands I would have associated with being “real snowboard brands” have been bought, merged, or otherwise changed from their original ownerships.

But it's not too late to keep the identity of snowboarding as a lifestyle sport intact. Decisions on how and where to promote growth in the market are mostly in the hands of manufacturers that advertise nationally (rather than shops that advertise locally). But these decisions will be made by individuals, not by brands. Those individuals are called marketing directors.

Call the ones who handle the brands your shop buys. Tell them you believe in snowboarding as a lifestyle sport. Tell them we already have a ski industry and a bike industry, and we don't need another one. We just need to keep being snowboarders.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––

What Do You Think?

We hope this column has sparked some of your own ideas about the changing nature of the snowboarding industry. If you would like to discuss topics such as these with Hume and dozens of other industry experts like him, join the Snowboarding Industry On-line Roundtable. This is a private, moderated discussion group available only to those working in the snowboard industry. To join, e-mail your name, title, and company name to sean@twsnet.com. If you want to e-mail Hume at Verb Design & Advertising, contact him at: action@verbdna.com.