Vans turns 50: ‘Why we’re not just a shoe company’

As Vans celebrates its 50th anniversary, its European marketing boss Neil Schambra Stevens believes its focus on people rather than products can keep it relevant.

It all started in California in 1966. Brothers Paul van Doren and Jim van Doren, along with partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, opened The van Doren Rubber Company on March 16. Their first shoe, the Vans #44 deck shoes, are born. Fifty years on, the brand has grown to become a worldwide phenomenon, sporting over 585 retail stores and selling its wares in 18 ecommerce markets. While the brand has been resolutely tight-lipped about its financials, it is projecting business growth of $2.9bn in 2017.

Neil Schambra Stevens, VP of marketing EMEA at Vans, believes the brand truly deserves to be labelled “iconic”. He says: “I think that as we’re celebrating 50 years and we’ve been involved with skate culture and music culture, it justifies that title of iconic. We have various aspects like the checkers and our ‘side stripe’ on the shoes that make us very recognisable as a brand.”

Bolstering creative links

When it comes to the secret of the brand’s success, Schambra Stevens credits founder Paul van Doren’s vision for its longevity.

He explains: “Paul wanted to make it a people company rather than a shoe company. That’s been critical for us in terms of how we develop our products. We have credibility in footwear, apparel and accessories, and so the opportunity to expand into new product groups and categories has been a key part of keeping us relevant.”

The brand’s success can in part be attributed to the Californian skateboarding community, which took a fancy to Vans’ rugged make-up and sticky sole. To this day, Schambra Stevens believes the brand’s heritage and skateboard culture are closely entwined.

“They’re both interlinked. We didn’t start out to be a skateboard company, but we were able to be relevant and credible to that community in Southern California.”

Neil Schambra Stevens, VP of marketing EMEA, Vans

However, he is insistent that while the brand’s roots “will always be in skate culture”, it now has a broader appeal. For example, the brand’s experiential ‘House of Vans’ venues are used as hubs to immerse consumers in the brand and showcase its links to other creative expressions.

“It’s critical that we maintain credibility with the core markets, but it goes above and beyond that. We’ve expanded into other creative communities, whether it’s music or art or fashion. We can’t reach our key goals and financial objectives by only selling skate shoes to skateboarders,” he says.


Evolving its marketing

To celebrate its 50th birthday, the brand is releasing a brand campaign to highlight its heritage, as well as setting up 10 experiential ‘House of Vans’ pop-ups around the world.

While the brand has steadily evolved, so has its marketing. Schambra Stevens says its communications aim to make the most of its history yet remain relevant with today’s consumers by “focusing on the glue rather than its heritage”.

He comments: “There are certain elements to the brand in terms of creativity and creative expression that are timeless. If you walk through the new brand campaign, we told the story of Vans through two contemporary illustrators who came up with a disruptive look and feel.

“It’s still very much ours and has those brand elements like the checkerboard, black and white and the use of the red, but it’s telling our story of the last 50 years in a contemporary way of how we show up as a brand.”

Being relevant is also important in the digital space. Vans has put an increased focus on its ecommerce offerings and is keen to experiment with new forms of technology.

“Whether it’s a different approach to window innovation by testing interactive window displays that can be scanned on mobile, it’s about making sure there’s an easiness and simplicity and being one or two clicks away when customers experience content,” he says.

“From an organisational point of view, we need to make sure we’re set up to deliver on that. Brands can get ahead of themselves and don’t have the infrastructure to actually deliver on what they want and need to do.”

When it comes to maintaining success, Schambra Stevens is bullish about the next 50 years. One thing remains clear – the brand needs to maintain a close relationship with the creative community to remain prosperous.

He concludes: “We’ve always been about enabling creative expression. For us to stay credible and relevant, we need to maintain those connections.”

Q&A: Neil Schambra Stevens, VP of marketing EMEA at Vans

The House of Vans has been open for two years. How has it performed?

The venue is open four to five days a week. One of our key principles is that it’s always free and will always be free. It’s something for us as a brand that makes us very accessible. In terms of what happens here, as a space and venue it’s based around art, skating, music and fashion and we’re able to activate the brand across all those pillars. It’s a living and breathing space, which allows us to bring the brand to life. There’s an opportunity for brands to go: “We’ve got a captive audience, let’s try and sell them something”, but it’s about including people and letting them experience the brand – it’s not about the revenue.

How do you measure the success of House of Vans?

It’s a bit of art and science. We’ve done research and the level of engagement with the attendees is very high. People always come back, and once they come back that figure [of brand awareness] increases from 70% to 80%. When you ask them how they hear about the House of Vans, the highest criteria is through word of mouth. So it really resonates with that key audience.

How do you use the House of Vans to engage the creative community?

We do a number of different workshops, focusing on screen printing or open mics sessions for up-and-coming musicians, or have skate session. Within that, you can appeal to different creative groups. There’s a lot of charitable work done here too, as we engage with local schools and communities. We like having a grassroots appeal. It’s not something we necessarily shout about, it’s much more impactful if you actually do rather than talk about it.

Why does this type of activity work for you?

Because we apply the same principles to the experience, in terms of always combining the key pillars of the brand including art, fashion and music, it’s done in a credible and real way. So whether it’s Berlin, Manchester or Milan, it’s about engaging the local community and making them feel part of something. The fact that it’s always free makes us a very accessible brand.

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