Earlier this year SOURCE were invited to Vans’ third annual Snowboarding Days, where they invite retailers and media to get a feel for next season’s boots on snow.
While at the event, hosted in Les Arcs for 2017, we were able to sit down and talk business with Vans’ Kevin Casillo (Sports Marketing Manager for Snow), Bobby Gascon (Director, Global Marketing Action Sports) & new Global Category Manager for Snow, Matt Patti.
We covered a range of topics spanning their first global snowboard team movie due for launch next year, their commitment to core retailers with regards to D2C, supporting the industry when times are hard and also covered their European and global marketing strategy. Interview & photos by Harry Mitchell Thompson.
Please could you tell me about your backgrounds?
Matt Patti: The past 10+ years I’ve been with Arbor Snowboards. The latter half of that I was privileged to be the brand manager and lead product developer. I was invited to join the Vans Global team in October 2016 and am very stoked to be here.
Bobby Gascon: I’ve been with Vans for almost eight years now. Previously, I oversaw the entire marketing program for Canada, and now, I am the Global Marketing Director for Action Sports since 2014.
Kevin Casillo: I’ve been at Vans for three and a half years, overseeing Global Snow Marketing as well as Global Surf Footwear Marketing. Previously, I was a rider and worked at Grenade and Spy as well, where I created and ran their marketing programs.
What have been the best aspects/positives arising from when you were forced to take a year off snowboard boots a couple of years ago?
Kevin: Looking back at the issue we had in 2014 with snowboard boots, we look at it as a blessing in a sense, as we were able to sit down and really dig deep into the snowboard category. It allowed us to re-architect things that we knew we had to do, but that we potentially wouldn’t have been able to do if we were resuming as normal, from season to season. It gave us that time to create a stronger actionable plan and strategy in terms of a tight product line and marketing approach. We’ve been able to come back and deliver the quality products that we’re known for with an equivalent marketing plan that supported telling the story of Vans. We’ve been in the snowboard boot market for over 20 years, and we’ve supported it through the ups and downs. That’s what Vans does. We support cultures that enable self-expression and really speak to what we’re really about and where we come from.
In the end, it gave us the time to step back and answer the hard questions and create a solution to deliver the top quality products we’ve put out in market ever since.
Bobby: You sometimes take things for granted until you can potentially lose them. A key learning for us was that we all cared about snowboarding and had the chance to refocus our entire approach. We came together across product and marketing and challenged ourselves to think outside of our past framework.
Are snowboard boots like wetsuits, in that they’re all made out of the same factory, but then re-branded?
Matt: There are specific boot factories, but Vans produces in two of their shoe factories, so it’s a bit of a different model.
One of the key learnings from a manufacturing standpoint is that it isn’t always ideal to keep all your eggs in one basket. Splitting manufacturers and working with two different factories means that if something happens with one of them, you are able to pivot more easily.
The last couple of years have seen a cull of action sports print titles. What are your views on print advertising and how do you think it can be best leveraged?
Kevin: We’re seeing the overall evolution of print media shrinking in terms of the amount of magazines out there producing editorial stories. But I think the surviving ones are really looking at their landscape and evaluating what they do. As we see print shrink, we are focusing on partnering closer with the most important endemic media titles to produce meaningful content.
We collaborate with these magazines on a deeper level, to understand how we can create content together that connects to their viewpoint. An example: in 2018, we have a full feature movie project coming out. All the content you see in traditional print media becomes a secondary layer for the brand. It’s in the first layer, where we create the true branded content stories, that we use that megaphone to drive that story.
The global movie you have next year; is that designed to boost boot sales or is it more of a branding exercise?
Kevin: I think it’s both. The goal for the movie is not purely to get a return on investment. The goal is to drive brand awareness and to continue to drive our team and the rich stories that come from Vans snow heritage.
Bobby: We’ve been making boots for 20+ years and we are still a small player. There are so many people that wear our shoes and don’t know we make snowboard boots. Also, there’s an opportunity to leverage our commitment to snowboarding. Providing a platform for our athletes with movies is super important.
Going back to print coverage – for an athlete, scoring a cover or an interview is still a great achievement but they need a real platform to showcase their talent. This why we are making a movie, to support and promote the talented team we have and how it comes together from a Vans lens.
D2C is becoming more and more important, but core skate, snowboard and surf is key to what Vans do. How are you doing to ensure that D2C doesn’t hurt core boardsports retailers?
Bobby: It’s a Catch 22. You can say that it hurts but it also helps on a certain level. Our US e-Comm platform carries our boots, but in some of our own retail stores, we showcased our boots in custom displays without selling them. Simply creating an awareness to drive traffic to our wholesale partners.
Also, our boots aren’t as overly distributed as other companies. That’s an opportunity to leverage so both DTC and wholesale are successful. We go above and beyond to give back and support our wholesale partners. For example, any profits we make from DTC are reinvested towards our wholesale strategy.
Europe is very fragmented compared to the US; lots of language barriers, different cultures etc. How do you adjust your marketing approach from America to Europe?
Kevin: Initially, we come together as a global team and discuss which strategies we are going to implement to drive snow marketing. Following that, we also discuss what the next layer is at a regional level and figure out how we can create stories that resonate with our European athletes in a way that is accessible and can be adapted.
Bobby: A good example is how our upcoming Vans snowboard movie and First Layer, our European project work together. We provide a global halo and regional projects feed into it. As per our athletes, our regional teams feed into the Global team. And sometimes athletes, especially in Europe, are more relevant out there than North Americans – it’s kind of a divide and conquer approach. In the end, it’s one team; we integrate regional athletes within Global campaigns to drive local relevancy.
Low levels of participation in snowboarding seems to be a major factor in the current downturn we are seeing in snowboarding. Are you doing anything for the kids segment, and/or the older segments?
Kevin: Snowboarding actually has the highest participation level of any action sport. Our initiatives such as the Hi-Standard series, are created to enable kids to come out and go snowboarding and have fun and be creative. And that goes for young kids all the way up to people who are 30+. We have an age group that knows no boundaries. And that’s free. Hi-Standard Series is a free event; kids sign up, they get a free lift ticket for the day, and they get to snowboard with friends. In the true Van Doren spirit, we provide lunch and really encourage people to have a good time. This is how we are tackling snowboard retention.
Bobby: Vans has historically supported action sports culture through its ups and downs. We look at snowboarding’s current state and we’re concerned with what’s happening, but should we be? Seems like the sport is reshaping itself, honouring its legends, allowing creativity through product development, and events catered to younger demographics. The same thing happened to skateboarding, bmx and surfing. Rather than walking away, like some of our competitors, we remain proactive and continue promoting our culture and growing participation. It’s who we are and the Vans Hi-Standard series is a great example.
Matt: I think it’s also worth noting that snowboarding among action sports has the highest level of participation in females. So it’s a pretty big segment of the business for us and we take the women’s category very serious.
On the product side, we have a new boot in sizes 1, 2, 3, which we haven’t had for the last couple of years. So that’s a new category.
And then I’d say for bridging the gap to retaining interest of some of our more veteran customers – Kevin does a great job with the team in maintaining longstanding relationships with guys like Jami Lynn and bringing legend status riders to the program like Bryan Iguchi. These are guys the more seasoned generation still feels really connected to. They may not recognize the names of some of the younger riders on the team, but Jamie has been their guy forever. And people love Guch. Those are strong connections to the brand.
Where are you placing your marketing emphasis in 2017 in snow?
Kevin: For us, Fall ‘17 is really going to be rolling out the media strategy for the movie. And not just creating awareness about the film, but also creating hype in driving the boots. As well as our Hi-Standard snowboard competition, which encourages self-expression.
We are also pushing each athlete’s colourway, with Pat Moore on the Infuse, Danimals on the Implant and Aimee Fuller on the Ferra. And really putting an emphasis on our hybrid plus system, which for Vans is the pinnacle of our technology, differentiating us from other competitors in the market.
The movie will be the main attraction – it will be a two-year project and in Fall it will be about how do we bring it to life with our media partners through the whole season beginning in September up until the launch in January 2018.
The launch strategy in January will break the traditional mould on how and when you release a snowboard movie. Doing it when winter is here and the mountains are alive will allow us to engage with our consumers in-season, increasing the opportunities for our snow team promote the movie through grassroots events and riding sessions.
It makes sense really. It means you can sell the boot that day to the consumer…
Kevin: Exactly. In Fall, what you’ll see in the media, will have a treatment and a feel that’s the same as the movie. This will allow us to educate, increase awareness and drive boot sales. And make sure people are stepping into boots that they enjoy.
Bobby: And for the movie, it’s not a yearly project. We don’t make movies on a yearly basis and we’ve never made a snowboard movie before. It’s something that we’re excited to do and we take this very seriously. We want to make sure we do it right and that it’s both impactful and inspiring.
The US has been affected by some major retailers shutting their doors, and it’s been put down to a ‘softness in retail’. I think hardgoods hasn’t been affected as much as apparel and shoes, but have you guys noticed it in apparel and shoes?
Bobby: These are challenging times for some of our wholesale partners. DTC is obviously a growing reality and is changing the way retailers do business. We are making strides to support our wholesale partners on all levels like today at Vans Snowboarding Days and globally, our boot category is performing. We’re committed and feel the support from our wholesale partners, which is key. We are seeing some positive notes through these difficult times.
Please could you explain your relationship with BOA?
Matt: I’m actually going to meet with BOA in a couple of weeks to talk about what the future holds. Vans was one of the first two snowboard boots to use BOA, so it’s been a long relationship. We’ve both had our ups and downs and today we are exploring possibilities of where the road will lead. They’ve told me that they’ve been doing things such as fireman’s boots – things that require quick closure, so they’re making attempts to do different stuff. The synergies we can make use of and share will hopefully open up new opportunities for product innovation.
It should be noted that the custom Vans sidestripe on the BOA coil is a feature that no other brand in BOA’s portfolio has been offered. The relationship is definitely a special one.
2016 was 50 years for Vans. Where do you see Vans in 50 years time?
Bobby: Our brand has grown significantly in the last decade. It’s no longer US-focused and/or US-driven. The way the business is structured globally and how Vans employees across the world are pushing the boundaries while preserving our brand’s values is compelling. It’s gratifying to see how we’re preserving the same passion the Van Doren family pioneered 50 years ago. The future is looking bright and we’re grateful to have such a dedicated family approach through all of our employees across the globe.